Mark Bignell

Mark Bignell

As we recover from the recession, Mark Bignell, Automotive Managing Consultant, Jonathan Lee Recruitment explains to Matthew Beecham how a 'perfect storm' led to shortages of automotive engineering skills and what companies can do to improve their situation.

Do you feel the automotive industry is facing a skills shortage, and if so, in which areas?

Many industries are now facing an acute shortage of specialist engineering skills as demand increases, following several years of recession. Growth in the automotive industry is exacerbating the issue across the entire sector, including operational and management roles, as well as in niche areas such as hybrid and electric vehicles where the low carbon technologies involved are crucial for the nation's future.

How has this situation arisen?

A complex combination of factors has led us to this position. Engineering and manufacturing has been out-of-fashion for several decades; there has been a long-term decline in the size of the engineering sector in the UK, and this has been paralleled by dwindling interest from young people choosing engineering as a career. The publicity given to potential Y2K issues during the 1990s pulled many bright undergraduates into an IT career rather than engineering.

The repercussions of abandoning apprenticeships show up in the demographics within the industry; the shortage of skilled engineers is worst within the 25-40 age group. Faced with uncertain growth, employers also have cut back on training. Meanwhile, existing employees have aged and many now face retirement. Into this mixture we can add our recovery from recession, which is fuelling industrial expansion and increased demand, creating the perfect storm.

What can be done to improve the situation?

Britain has been an engineering powerhouse in the past, and there is no reason why it can't be again, but it requires a cultural shift. Parents, schools and industry need to spark the enthusiasm of young people for engineering and make it one of the most appealing career choices for school leavers. For industry to secure its own long term future, it must embrace flexible recruitment policies, coupled with investment in training and development, to build a workforce from a mixture of graduates, apprentices and other sources of skilled labour. Central government can play its part by providing increased funding for the key areas where a shortfall exists.

Jonathan Lee Recruitment works with both schools and manufacturing companies to increase awareness of engineering through local events, and contributes at national level to initiatives from the SMMT, MIA and IMechE, such as Formula Student. The companies that need most support are the SMEs and others in the supply chain that may lack a full appreciation of the best practices required to attract and retain skilled candidates. In this respect, they often lose out to larger companies in the scramble for the best recruits.

Can you retrain skilled staff from other industries?

There is a strong case for recruiting candidates with transferrable skills from parallel industries. We work with clients in a range of industries and have used our breadth of reach to redeploy staff from sectors that are shrinking into other, more buoyant, industries. However, as we pull out of recession, many industries are recovering simultaneously, so there is no pool of readily available talent waiting to transfer its skills, and because skills such as software, electronics, control engineering and computing are transferable in both directions, the automotive sector is itself exposed to attack by other industries.

We are helping to maximise the transference of skills by using our understanding of diverse industries to analyse each job vacancy and identify the core skills that are readily transferrable and distinguish them from those that can be easily added through retraining. Our larger clients, in particular, are recognising the value of selecting candidates whose attitude and passion outweighs any shortfall in particular specialist skills; they are the most receptive to additional training. In some cases they find it easier to retrain existing staff, then backfill with new appointments.

What can be done in the short term?

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