Hard times loom as slowdown bites

With warnings over the skill shortages facing manufacturing industry, you would be forgiven for believing anyone with an engineering degree could waltz straight into the job of their choice.

With continued warnings over the crippling skill shortages facing manufacturing industry, you would be forgiven for believing anyone with an engineering degree could waltz straight into the job of their choice.

But the recent downturn in the industry has led some companies to freeze recruitment until things improve, leading to a reduction in general engineering vacancies.

The Engineering Employers’ Federation this month warned that both engineering and the rest of manufacturing are now in recession. The global slowdown and the continued strength of the euro have hit the industry hard in the past six months, and more job cuts are expected in the second half of the year.

This slump has already begun to affect the market for engineers, and a recent survey by recruitment consultant Manpower has found employment prospects in manufacturing are weaker than in the rest of the economy.

The report warns that manufacturers expect to recruit staff at a much slower rate than companies in the retail industry and public sector. Compared to a national average of 20 net gains in jobs to be created against those to be lost, textiles manufacturers were predicting a gain of just two, while the automotive and engineering sectors were expecting to fare only slightly better on nine. Traditional manufacturing regions, such as Scotland and the North East, are also lagging behind the rest of the country.

In particular, demand for production and manufacturing engineers has declined in the first six months of this year as a result of the depression in the industry, says Rob Wigley, managing consultant at Network Recruitment.

But despite this decline, the news is not all doom and gloom from within the sector, as engineers with the right experience are still highly sought after, and can command good salaries. Software and electronics engineers, and those with design and stress analysis skills, are always in demand, says Wigley. ‘People with general mechanical engineering degrees probably aren’t finding as many opportunities as those with specialist skills. We’ve got some jobs we just can’t fill, while we have got a lot of engineers available. There’s no shortage of engineers. There is a shortage of engineers with the right skills.’

One bright spot within the recruitment market is the aerospace industry, with work coming into the sector as a result of the Airbus programme. This is filtering through to components suppliers, who are recruiting to keep up with demand. Airbus UK will recruit 200 engineers by the end of the year.

The company has already taken on 350 engineers in the past year, according to an Airbus recruitment spokeswoman, and is having to compete in an increasingly tough market for experienced aeronautical engineers. To cope with these shortages, Airbus is looking to other industries, such as the automotive sector, for potential recruits.

‘We are looking at people from any sector where they have transferable skills, because the aeronautic industry is only so big, and there is alimited pool of people.’

The company is recruiting systems engineers, as well as those with expertise in structural design and stress, but is not looking for recent graduates. ‘Because we are looking for people with experience in what is already a niche market, they are obviously more expensive, and it becomes that much more difficult to find them,’ she says.

Meanwhile, despite the global problems in the automotive industry, the market for engineers with experience in the sector remains surprisingly buoyant, says Colin Woolford, resourcing manager at consultant Beechwood. But much of this demand stems from firms in Western Europe. Component makers in countries such as Austria, Switzerland and Germany, where engineering shortages in some disciplines are every bit as severe as those over here, are very keen to attract engineers from the UK.

The Engineering Council and the UK’s universities should do more to help engineers take advantage of such opportunities, by making degree courses more business-oriented, he says. ‘Some universities now offer Engineering and German, Engineering and French, or Engineering with Business Studies – that’s what I like to see. We need well-rounded people: not geeky engineers, but engineers with business acumen.’

This would give engineers a greater opportunity to progress into management positions within UK firms. It could also encourage more people to join the profession, as many undergraduates are being put off an engineering career by fears that there are limited opportunities for progression, he says.

But even with greater business acumen, professionals still need the right engineering skills if they want to progress. The majority of vacancies in the industry are now for design, development and project engineers, he says. ‘There is a fundamental emphasis out there for design engineers, and that’s across the board, from electronics and electrical to mechanical.’

Many of these design vacancies are for engineers to join specialist consultants, and these firms are looking for the best candidates available, says Woolford. ‘If you graduate with a third, unfortunately you probably won’t end up in one of these consultancies. So there is an emphasis on recent graduates to be bigger and better than they were five or six years ago.’

With goods much cheaper to produce in countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, companies are opting to design and develop their products in the UK and then manufacture them in eastern Europe. The recent shift in demand from those with general engineering skills to specialists is set to continue and could even accelerate, says Stephen Brown, managing director of recruitment consultants Europrojects.

National specialisation

This trend may eventually see individual countries specialising in certain skills or industries, in the same way 19th century towns were dependent on mining, foundries or textiles for their survival, says Brown. ‘Each town was like a mini-economy that was totally dependent on one thing, and then when that one thing declined and fell by the wayside, the town declined.’

So while eastern Europe may specialise in low-cost manufacturing, and Asia in producing cheap electronic goods, the UK will stick to what it is good at – generating ideas and developing new technologies. ‘You’re going to have a country that is very innovative. I think it’s true that we are a nation of inventors.’

The idea of the UK relying on companies to continue their research and development work here despite shifting all their production elsewhere is obviously a worrying one. A look at towns in the north of England and Wales that were decimated by the decline of the coal mining industry is enough to set the alarm bells ringing.

But the trend is not having any adverse affect on wages. Pay is better than ever before, says Brown, such is the demand for engineers with the right experience. In 1996, the average salary for an engineer of five years experience, to work on the design of a specialist vehicle, would be between £22k and £25k, he said. ‘They are now looking at earning between £27k and £30k, and really specialist people are earning £30k plus.’

Salary savvy

Despite the shortage of specialists, Brown says it can actually be easier to find recruits to fill vacancies than a few years ago, as engineers are now more mobile, and are willing to change jobs more often.

But be prepared – they also have more savvy when it comes to the wages they can expect to earn, warns Brown. ‘I can find people for companies more readily now, but companies have to pay more for them.’