Driven in pursuit of new talent

Written by: Evelyn Adams
Published on: 2 Mar 2016

The UK automotive industry has seen a dramatic revival since the recession. Last year was the best year in a decade for car production with 1.59 million vehicles and 2.4 million engines built. The growth has helped sustain around 800,000 jobs with more than 40 companies making cars in the UK. And that trend is set to continue. By 2020, production volumes are expected to reach a record two million.

Major companies are already investing heavily in the UK. At the end of February, Aston Martin, announced that St Athan in Glamorgan, Wales, will become a major hub for manufacturing its DBX crossover vehicle. Production of the all-electric RapidE is also to be located at Gaydon, starting in 2018. Aston Martin claims both these moves will create up to 1,000 new jobs in the UK between now and 2020.

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But the automotive industry is struggling to recruit enough engineers to keep up with demand. During the recession, more than 100,000 people left the industry through voluntary severance, retirement or redundancy. Many of these experienced engineers have not returned, leaving a huge skills gap. According to a recent report by the Automotive Council, the industry is having difficulty filling 5,000 vacancies, causing a major impact on business.

“Skills are a major contributor to productivity and as a nation we are not doing well enough,” Nick Boles, minister of state for skills, said in an introduction to the report. “We must raise our game, in areas ranging from basic skills to high-level technical and engineering capability. Employers have a central role to play in this.”

The report, which was developed by automotive industry consultants SMMT Industry Forum, asked a range of British-based automotive firms to identify the areas of employment most difficult to recruit. Around 19 per cent of the unfilled vacancies cited in the report are identified as “critical” and having a significant impact on company operations. Of the top 10 job types for which recruitment is most difficult, the majority are in engineering – with the top two in-demand roles being design and production engineers.

The knock-on effect is that companies are hiring temporary contractors and increasingly recruiting from abroad. “These are very significant findings that present a valuable basis for government and industry to jointly tackle this issue head-on and ensure that the growth potential of the industry in the coming years is fulfilled,” said Jo Lopes, head of technical excellence, Jaguar Land Rover. “The Automotive Industrial Partnership has already made some important steps, including the introduction of a range of training programmes.”

As competition heats up with electric cars, and work progresses on self-driving vehicles, the type of skills needed in the industry are changing. For instance, the report highlights a need for mechanical, electrical and electronics production engineers. Overall, 71 different types of learning are required for more than 20,000 people working in the industry – 15 per cent of whom have an immediate need for new training. The industry is working together to create training programmes that can address this.

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One example is the Maintenance Upskilling programme, which has been developed by companies across the automotive industry. The course provides a 13-week conversion programme that allows electricians in other industries to transfer their skills over to automotive. Alongside this, a Trailblazer apprenticeship training programme has been developed in mechatronics for future recruitment into this area.

Meanwhile, government initiatives such as Make it in Great Britain and See Inside Manufacturing are aiming to transform outdated opinions of modern manufacturing by giving potential engineers an inside look at some of the country’s world-class automotive facilities. And the Automotive Industrial Partnership has developed a ‘jobs framework’ – an industry standard hierarchy of roles – to make it easier for companies to structure positions and for employees to follow clear career development paths.

Skills are a major contributor to productivity and as a nation we are not doing well enough” - Nick Boles, minister of state for skills

“Our automotive workforce is the most productive in Europe and this goes a long way to explaining why production hit record levels last year,” said skills minister Nick Boles. “[But] we cannot be complacent. The sector needs to maintain its high productivity and international competitiveness, and address the required demand of skilled workforce, engineers and designers. That’s why our apprenticeship reforms are putting employers in the driving seat, to deliver the high-tech, long-term skills our economy needs.”

Nick Carter has worked as an apprentice at Aston Martin’s Gaydon factory, and said the hands-on skills he learned have been invaluable in getting ahead in the industry. “Here, I have learnt the practical skills of interior trim development, a limited skill set in this country,” he added. “In an engineering environment there is a need for communication, especially when working cross-functionally with other departments. The apprenticeship scheme has helped build my confidence and communication skills inside and out of work.”

Top 10

The most needed jobs in the UK automotive sector:

  1. Design engineer
  2. Production engineer
  3. Buyer
  4. Senior design engineer
  5. Maintenance technician
  6. Programme manager
  7. Quality operations engineer
  8. Manufacturing team leader
  9. Programme engineer
  10. Quality operation technician

But Mike Hawes, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) chief executive, believes more such initiatives should be rolled out across the sector. “The automotive industry has already invested heavily in apprenticeships and training for existing staff to grow and develop a new generation of skilled worker. However, even more support is needed. The struggle to fill vacancies is holding back growth and opportunities for business, and it is essential that both government and industry work together quickly to identify ways to plug this gap.”

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For now, many companies enjoying the automotive renaissance in the UK are attempting to keep up with demand by recruiting temporary contractors. But with huge investment going into training programmes in the coming years, the workforce could change dramatically. If these programmes are successful, future engineers in the UK could become a formidable manufacturing force.