I was a working-class white boy once

Recalling his childhood in Wales prompts Sir Keith Burnett to muse on the opportunities for today’s youth

February 15, 2016
Rhondda Heritage Park
Times past: Rhondda Heritage Park

The Rhondda Valley is a truly special place, as the many fine poems and stories written of its flourishing society and culture testify. The working men’s institutes, built from individual subscriptions, had the finest libraries and reading rooms. My father read the Edinburgh Review in Ystrad Libary, and debated aspects of philosophy in chapel discussion groups.

I was born into that valley in the 1950s, so I saw the vibrancy beginning to decay, but the Grand Theatre in Tonypandy was still a magnificent venue to see a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, and the chapels still rang to the sound of hymns sung in four-part harmony. (I sang tenor.)

What changed? Money and jobs.

It is employment that nourishes a society, and without it we are lost. As that great sage of American life George Washington Plunkett used to say: “How do you make someone a good citizen? Do you give them a copy of the Bill of Rights? No, you get them a job!”

There are, of course, other aspects of the decay of a society, but don’t ever be tricked into thinking you can rebuild a society with hymns and aspiration alone. Schools and universities can help, but not without a job in the offing.

And I have not forgotten that you may have to leave the Valley to get a job. That is what my father did. He didn’t go so far, just across the mountain to Gilfach Goch, then I went further to England and beyond. I had a fine education in South Wales and then went on to a university career, but much of my family stayed in the Valley and lived through its problems.

The assumption that everyone around you has a job, women included as this was no middle-class soft spot, is simply fundamental. Without it there is decay of all aspects of life. To think that this can be reinjected by school or university is folly.

So why don’t we just make the people move to where there are jobs? This would be an option if there were lots of jobs for poor working-class boys elsewhere. Where is that? No, we have to see that we are wasting their talents and build a new industrial base around where they live.

My father taught me well, so I know that to have a flourishing society you have to make things. The valleys tried to substitute the decline in coal mining by light engineering and garment manufacturing. These both took a hammering as emerging economies made things at prices with which we could not compete.

You are probably now thoroughly depressed, so let me cheer you up. I'll tell about the way my own university is getting jobs for the supposedly impossible-to-reach poor white boys (and others) as well as boosting our manufacturing exports.

Manufacturing is now mostly done in a capital intensive environment, where low pay is no longer an advantage. The global competitive advantage comes from being high-tech, from innovation in the value chain. When companies combine with university research in state-of-the-art R&D facilities such as the two Advanced Manufacturing Catapults based on a former mining site,  we learn together to beat the rest of the world again. Companies get orders. They want to expand and inward investment moves in needing – guess what – high-tech skills that match their ambitions.

In Sheffield, we are using the ideas generated in our engineering research to make the factories of the future – indeed, the world’s first fully reconfigurable factory is now built and filling with machines. But forget any images of foundries or oily rags. This building is circular, made of glass, engineers working with no separation from the futuristic factory floor in which machines can be relocated by a programmed autonomous vehicle or a remote control you hold in just one hand.

And beside it, an apprentice training centre in which 600 of those mainly poor white boys from areas in which education often ends at 16 are studying a top-of-the-range apprenticeship sponsored by their employers (they all have jobs). They are learning what is relevant, the skills of the future. And they are earning. They have no debt.

The companies know that these people are the real secret to future success. They will need the poor young white boys with the skills of the future. And just to be clear, others want this too. It is not the colour of your skin that is the barrier to social mobility. The Somali boys we support in another part of Sheffield are also keen to visit and apply for a route to training and work that does not entail debt.

And what next? Are we offering a second-class ticket to the future? No way. We are developing a manufacturing engineering degree on the same basis. Still sponsored by companies. And looking at other tracks, too. Law. Management. Medical engineering.

We are giving young people the chance to train and operate the robots and do the engineering design needed for future products that only people, trained from the ground up, can do. They will infuse the local small companies and suppliers. And that will rebuild society.

Suddenly everyone from the prime minister down is talking about social mobility. But real people need more than talk, more than thinktanks.

Some of our apprentices are the only people in their family in work. They are smart. They are ambitious. They have no intention of staying poor. 

 Sir Keith Burnett is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.

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