Comment: Poles apart

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Following the enlargement of the European Union in 2004, the Polish plumber emerged as the scourge of workshy tradesmen in the western half of the continent. Prepared to work longer and for less than his counterparts, while delivering a faster, friendlier and professional service, he was welcomed by hard-pressed householders but loathed by his domestic rivals.

While Lech the plumber may have been a bogeyman dreamt up by protectionists in the service sectors in France, Germany and the UK, a wave of migration after 2004 saw many manual workers from the accession states seek their fortunes in western Europe. Some of them did earn a living fixing domestic drains.

Poles have long been known for their work ethic and high standards of education. While communism's dead hand stifled their get-up-and-go for decades, recent years have seen some of that willingness to succeed return in the country's aerospace sector.

Polish plumber, © Sipa Press/Rex Features
 © Sipa Press/Rex Features
Doing a great job...for less

Poland's industry has gone through a remarkable turnaround, but it was not overnight. For years after its Marxist ideologues disappeared, the country clung to its pre-1990 set-up of sprawling, state-owned, vertically integrated aviation factories producing dwindling numbers of legacy aircraft using outmoded methods, and lurching from one crisis to the next.

But its leaders realised early that the way out was to embrace increasing globalisation. This did not mean trying to find foreign investors for its creaking assets and continuing as before. It meant offering its strongest card - human capital and technical know-how - to international partners who wanted to outsource chunks of their supply chain to more competitive regions.

That involved pain: tens of thousands of workers who had spent a career fixing bolts on to fuselages were let go. Cavernous assembly halls and decaying office blocks were left empty. But the industry that remained was lean and keen, and original equipment manufacturers from North America and western Europe have come in their droves to benefit from a highly skilled workforce who could deliver more than the basic assembly work on offer in other offshore regions.

And the Polish plumber? Well, the country's aerospace industry is recruiting again and looking for, if not cistern-fixers, skilled fitters and engineers. Pushed by a weak euro and pound, many of his compatriots are returning to a nation that rode out the recession reasonably intact and discovering new careers at the cutting edge of aerospace.