While it may seem like the economy is languishing in the wake of the recession, one area at the heart of British manufacturing is continuing to buck the trend. The UK automotive industry, once a symbol of the country’s decline, is now experiencing something of a renaissance.
Over the past 18 months, almost every company involved in UK automotive has expanded its business. Among the most significant moves has been that of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) which announced the creation of over 5,500 new jobs, supply contracts in excess of £3bn and a £355m investment into a new low emission engines facility in the Midlands.
BMW has also invested in the UK with £500m in new facilities and equipment at its MINI assembly plant, the engine plant in Hams Hall and the pressings plant in Swindon. Similarly, Honda has announced a £267m investment for new models and engines at its Swindon plant and Nissan has confirmed a £420m investment at its Sunderland plant.
The industry’s revival is all the more remarkable given the grave situation facing many of mainland Europe’s car makers. The likes of Peugeot, Fiat and Renault, have in recent months been battered by waves of poor demand, severe overcapacity and a lack of finance. OEMs, it seems, are increasingly concerned about the risks attached to mainland Europe but remain attracted to the long-term stability of the UK.
Given this trend, career opportunities for UK automotive engineers are both plentiful and varied, with positions available through the value chain. As technology progresses in areas such as low carbon development, systems integration and vehicle communication, a wider range of skills are needed to meet demand. James Marco, a professor of automotive engineering at Cranfield University, has already seen a shift in emphasis.
‘If you look at automotive job adverts, arguably most of them are for people in power electronics, software or control engineering- areas that traditionally the auto industry has outsourced or simply not been interested in,’ said Marco. ‘Nobody considers a vehicle to be purely a range of mechanical components anymore. It is becoming much more a system. Automotive engineers now need to understand things that are well beyond their traditional technology boundaries.’
In the move towards low carbon vehicles, for instance, the Automotive Council has identified the internal combustion engine, lightweight materials, electronics and energy storage as four key areas of research going forward. These will all require a multi-disciplinary team of skilled engineers, who are not only able to understand each other’s requirements, but also communicate their ideas effectively to those outside their area of expertise.
Sam Akehurt, a lecturer in Automotive Engineering at Bath University, is excited by the opportunities this could bring: ‘The CO2 challenge is only going to increase over time, making technologies that at present seem speculative gain ground as credible alternatives. The research required to progress these concepts offers great scope for graduates entering the profession. Whichever approaches are targeted, there is going to be far more complexity in vehicles.’
Mike Grey, who manages Coventry University’s Engineering Employability and Placement Unit, highlights that the fast-paced nature of the industry is conducive to innovation. He notes that the shorter project lead times allow engineers working in automotive to see how their work is contributing to the output of the business more immediately than those working in areas such as aerospace. A factor, he said, that helps retain talent in the industry once it is there.
But attracting this talent in the first place continues to be a problem for the industry. Given the level of demand in the sector, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) is concerned that the UK doesn’t have the resources to deliver the engineering excellence that is expected from investors. In the group’s recent ‘Capturing Opportunity’ report, it noted that the engineering skills shortage in the UK is now reaching critical levels in key industry areas.
The government has taken a number of practical measures to overcome this. According to the SMMT, the number of degree level engineering students graduating increased to 23,907 in 2011, up from 20,631 in 2007. Apprenticeship targets were also exceeded in the first financial year of the current Parliament. However it stressed that far more needs to be if the UK is to ensure the on-going health of the sector.
Grey believes the solution is in automotive employers offering students more industrial experience through apprenticeship, placement and internship schemes. ‘The most cost effective way to attract and retain talent is to aid their development and develop company loyalty in the process,’ he said. ‘Many employers expect work-ready graduates with commercial awareness and developed knowledge of industrial processes. Industry, employers and the university sector need to work in partnership to make this a reality.’
While this will help engage those already interested in the industry, the benefits of the automotive sector need to be highlighted more aggressively by those working in the sector. According to Marco, no other engineering sector can offer quite the same level of excitement and challenge as automotive. ‘I’ll admit what first drew me in was the fast cars…but now the attraction is in understanding the complexity of the machines and the unique demands placed on them. If you’re interested in engineering, you would struggle to find a domain that is more multi-disciplinary as the automotive industry.’
Overall, vehicle production in the UK is expected to increase at 9 per cent per year to 2.2 million in 2016. Last year the UK produced 1.4 million vehicles, with over 80 per cent of current production exported to markets around the world. The supply chain that feeds into these OEMs is also seeing a swell in demand with £3bn of supply opportunities currently identified for UK-based businesses. If the UK is to continue the success of the industry, a similar spike in recruitment urgently needs to take place.
The revival of the UK automotive industry has demonstrated the faith of investors in British high-end engineering. UK institutions now need to demonstrate the same faith in their own engineers by working together to promote the rewarding futures that awaits those working in the sector.