Wrapping up an 11-city North American tour, government delegates from Northern Ireland paid a visit to Silicon Valley Thursday in an effort to attract new businesses to the region.
With so many companies trying to expand their global presence, representatives from the Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland (IDB), the Northern Ireland Assembly and the British government told a crowd of high-tech executives about the benefits the "gateway to Europe" has to offer.
Acknowledging that the once bitterly-divided country has a way to go on the political front as Protestants and Catholics work towards peace, the delegates said plenty of opportunities exist now that an agreement has been signed earlier this year to end the long-time fighting there.
"The problems aren't all behind us, but the opportunities are all ahead of us," said John McFall, United Kingdom's minister for education and training, who is assisting the transition. "There's no going back."
Touting its enthusiastic, well-educated and skilled labor force, its proximity to major European cities, its financial incentives and its communications and transportation infrastructure, officials said the electronics, telecommunications and software industries are booming and continue to hold promise for companies in those sectors.
"Northern Ireland is the closest to the United States in terms of time zones. Northern Ireland is plugged into Europe," said IDB chairman Alan Gillespie. "The infrastructure is excellent. About 90% of the companies export worldwide. And, about 10,000 graduates move into the workforce annually and hold degrees in engineering, science-related fields and software development."
U.S. Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley also encouraged executives to consider Northern Ireland when thinking of expansion.
"This is not some emerging market here," Daley said. "They have a strong, vibrant and robust economy and an enthusiastic skilled workforce."
While there is a renewed effort to lure business to the area, officials were quick to say that foreign investment, particularly from U.S.-based companies, has been a cornerstone of Northern Ireland's economy for years.
In the last three years, international investments totaled more than $1 billion, and currently 100 American and Canadian companies operate in Northern Ireland, accounting for 12% of the country's manufacturing workforce.
Seagate Technology, for example, has been in Northern Ireland since 1993. To date, the company has poured nearly $350 million into two manufacturing sites located there, said David A. Drennan, vice president of corporate development.
The Scotts Valley, Calif. disk drive maker chose those locations for three primary reasons - the people, the support it received from the local government and the infrastructure that was in place, Drennan said.
"They have a strong secondary program and with the number of qualified workers, there was no need for us to invest in remedial classes. In many locations we moved to, we had to provide language or computer classes," he said. "They are committed to training and furthering their education. About 10% to 15% of the workforce at Seagate's Northern Ireland sites are enrolled in an advanced degree program. About 30% of the engineering team has advanced degrees in fields such as biotechnology, information technology and materials science."