In the driver’s seat

As launch head of the UK’s first Automotive Academy, Dr. Nick Barter is charged with honing the skills of the next generation to enter the automotive industry. Andrew Lee reports.

Every news report about the UK’s dire skills shortage compared to Germany or Japan is guaranteed to set alarm bells ringing in the automotive industry.

Dr. Nick Barter hopes the seeds he is sowing now can calm those fears in years to come.

Barter is launch director for the UK’s first Automotive Academy, a major initiative designed to make sure the nation’s automotive sector has the skilled people it needs to stay in the game. It is a measure of the importance attached to the project that its backers – including the government and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders – selected Barter to get it off the ground.

One of the industry’s most respected engineers, he was until 2002 director of product development for Jaguar and Land Rover, leading a team of 5,000 and in charge of a £500m budget. Now Barter is charged with the task of ensuring that his successors are equipped for the demands of the future by giving the industry access to a ‘world-class’ network of skills and training.

The Automotive Academy will operate on a ‘hub and spoke’ model. Its base will be in the West Midlands, connected to a series of regional spokes designed to meet the skills needs of the industry in their particular area.

The initiative has the enthusiastic support of the government, the industry and the unions. Barter believes this is because it will for the first time give the automotive industry a decisive say in the type of skills that are taught to those it employs. ‘Teachers, lecturers and trainers have done good work. But there has not been a good enough linkage between them and those within the industry who are the recipients of the trained people,’ said Barter.

The Automotive Academy will set the standards for training that meets the industry’s requirements, identify where it can be found and point companies, organisations or individuals in its direction. ‘The academy will know about the industry in each area, who the training providers are and how to get funding for that training,’ said Barter.

If the Automotive Academy is, by universal agreement, a good thing, why has nobody thought of it before?

Training and skills development in the industry has, in a very British way, tended to be a largely ad hoc affair. The UK sector has got by on a mixture of in-house training by the big car companies, specialised courses from universities and vocational training by further education colleges to achieve the requisite skill levels.

It is the latter, said Barter, which will be the initial focus of the academy’s efforts. In particular, he sees a need to tackle the lack of regard in which the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) is held. ‘One of the things I hope that we can do is to raise the status of the NVQ, because frankly it doesn’t seem to have a very good image.’ Barter believes that this need not be the case.

‘I was intrigued when a guy from Germany said to me recently what a wonderful system we have in the UK, this national qualification, nationally graded,’ said Barter. ‘He thought it was a great idea. I was quite struck by that, because we are always busy saying what a wonderful system they have in Germany.’

According to Barter, the concept of the NVQ is fine. ‘I think the problem has been about the quality of what’s being delivered and the quality of those assessing it.’

If the Automotive Academy can make its mark on NVQ courses by recognising and approving those that deliver what the industry needs, Barter hopes the prestige of the qualification will rise accordingly.

‘We’ll be making it quite clear what the industry wants, and we are only going to be validating the type of training that is absolutely world class. We can do that because the motor industry is a global one, and we have access to the training departments of global companies. We will be able to benchmark it against the best in the world.’

The academy is already operating a limited training regime, but will ramp up to full speed when a full-time chief executive is appointed – a process Barter is overseeing and which is at an advanced stage.Barter will then step back from the academy’s day-to-day running, but will retain an active interest in its development.

He is emphatic about the urgent need to raise the level of skills and quality of training in UK automotive. ‘If we look at the factors that will make this a successful industry in the future, a big one is well-trained people working in it. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.’

Barter is, however, equally insistent that there are substantial grounds for optimism if the right steps are taken. ‘We are not in a disaster area here, far from it. We have got some very good stuff going on in the UK. What we need is some of our smaller companies in particular to raise to the same levels.’

Barter has ample opportunity to see the best the UK’s automotive talent pool has to offer while wearing another hat as programme director of Foresight Vehicle, the industry’s technology transfer network. Foresight Vehicle is intended to promote technology partnerships in the areas that will shape the future of the global industry, hopefully allowing UK researchers and companies to play a leading role. Prominent examples include technologies to make cars more environmentally friendly, fuel efficient and safer, along with advanced in-vehicle communications systems.

Barter acknowledges that a big proportion of the impetus in some of these areas is coming from regulation from the likes of the EU, which is placing increasing demands on manufacturers already working with razor-thin profit margins.

‘I’m not against regulation, but sometimes there is a bit too much and it can end up adding a lot of cost to the car. The industry and regulators need to work together to make sure it doesn’t go over the top.’

Barter believes that those setting the rules need to bear in mind the nature of the market. ‘We don’t work in a controlled economy and it is market forces that drive what happens. People have to want to buy the products, and they are not on the whole very altruistic. They mostly are not willing to pay for a more environmentally friendly vehicle if a manufacturer gives it to them for £2,000 more than anyone else’s. They will say no thank you.’

That is not to say innovation is impossible. ‘I was very proud that we made the new Jaguar XJ in aluminium and didn’t charge more for it even though it cost more. It made our cars lighter and gave better performance and better economy. That’s the kind of thing that if you’re brave, and if you are operating in the luxury car world you can just about do.’ Barter admitted, however: ‘There’s a limit to how much of that you can do in the mass market.’

Hopefully programmes such as Foresight Vehicle will give manufacturers the chance to meet the increasing demands of regulators and satisfy customers’ demands for better value. ‘I think it’s a terrific initiative,’ said Barter. ‘It has just launched its 100th project, generated more than 100 published papers and has got 400 companies and universities working together.’

With his high-level involvement in the future skills and technology landscape of the UK industry, it is easy to forget that Barter is officially retired. His life since leaving Jaguar is busy enough for a full-time job, but ‘without many of the day-to-day stresses and getting on planes to the United States. One of the nice things is that I’m doing it because I enjoy it and because I think it’s important,’ said Barter. ‘It’s a great industry to work in. That’s one of the messages we’ve got to get across.’