Driving demand for skills

Despite famous British marques moving into foreign ownership, demand for UK automotive engineering expertise is strong – including the defence industry, reports Julia Pierce


After a recent spate of buy-outs of UK automotive brands by overseas firms, such as Tata’s acquisition of Land Rover Jaguar, doubts have been raised about the future of British engineering jobs.

After the Land Rover Jaguar announcement was made, fears focused on whether Tata would do what Chinese car companies Shanghai Automotive and Nanjing did to MG Rover — taking control of the intellectual rights to the designs and brands while moving production offshore. Increased globalisation and pressure to cut vehicle costs are encouraging manufacturers to take the low-cost option.

But should British engineers be worried? Production of cars in the UK last year was just over 1.5 million. Although this is below the all-time peak of almost 2 million in 1972, it is still a healthy figure, comparable to the mid-1970s, and has remained constant in recent years.

‘The impact of consolidation on the market and on skilled British engineers could be two-fold,’ said Stuart Proctor, recruitment manager at Cummins. ‘There could be increased reliance on centres of excellence for cutting-edge technological development. In this scenario, decisions on the development of new technology, products and the associated testing would continue to be divorced from the location of manufacture, which will be based on overall cost of production.

‘There could also be the establishment of niche, highly specialised skills centres based around more traditional skills, which would be recognised nationally and internationally for their ability to deliver in their area of specialisation.

‘For staff whose skill is easily transferable or is in ample supply, the impact could be great, with opportunities at a local or even national level being rare, driving down the rewards available or ultimately stemming the supply of engineers entering the industry.’

But this is likely to be a very small problem for British engineers, given their particular skills, says Proctor. As long as the ability to solve problems and develop new technologies can be translated well into actual products, their future looks bright.

‘I feel that the unique skills within the UK are more aligned with the continuity, knowledge base and the ability to link ideas, concepts and existing thinking to develop the technology of the future,’ he said. ‘Research skills form a fundamental base for this approach but must be combined with the ability to communicate effectively, to be flexible in approach and to deliver.’

The Land Rover Jaguar sale may have awakened old fears of outsourcing, but most of Britain’s surviving famous names are in foreign hands, such as Mini and Rolls-Royce, which are subsidiaries of BMW, Vauxhall, owned by General Motors of the US, and Proton’s involvement with Lotus.

All these companies are continuing to design and produce quality vehicles for the domestic and overseas markets. And when it comes to production and design, some of the UK’s biggest success stories in the sector have come from Japanese companies, such as the successful launch and subsequent popularity of the British-designed and built Nissan Qashqai.

New owners are often keen to inject capital and new ideas into existing companies. So far at the highly skilled end of the business, the possibility of redundancies and outsourcing of jobs to lower-cost economies seems to have been avoided, suggesting that the type of highly trained engineer found in Britain is highly valued by the purchasers of such marques.

At the luxury end of the market, it could be argued that the cachet and image of a perfectly designed and crafted vehicle makes outsourcing to lower-cost economies unlikely. ‘Despite the number of recent takeovers of British marques, part of their branding depends on the fact that they have been built in the UK,’ said Martin Horne, metrology manager at Bentley. ‘Rather than being keen on the cost savings of moving to cheap labour, people will pay for the privilege, as well as the idea that their vehicle has been hand-crafted.’

Bentley is about to embark on next-generation work, including the production of six new vehicles and four facelifts of existing designs, which is creating a need to take on more staff. ‘We are looking for highly technical specialists at the moment who have a good automotive problem-solving background,’ said Horne. But he added that some changes to the skills base were needed to fulfil the needs of companies such as his.

‘There seems to be a number of people with ability in reactive work, but not so many with proactive skills,’ said Horne. ‘Many engineers are good at solving problems, but what we really need are those who can design such things out beforehand. We are seeing a lot of applicants with systems analysis backgrounds but what we really need are those with mechanical and particularly mechanical design skills, as well as practical experience in issues such as why things distort or shrink.

‘However, Britain has a lot of technical expertise. There are a lot of specialised trades, while engineers have good spatial awareness alongside the ability to think in 3D. They are good at coming up with solutions on the run as well as problem-solving in the field.’

Demand for engineers continues to be good. ‘The sector is doing well — everyone is recruiting strongly,’ said Mark Bideleux, automotive account manager at engineering consultancy Assystem (UK). ‘Every OEM is busy, which means that Tier I and Tier II companies are also very active and are offering long contracts. From our point of view, this means that few people are moving, and it is hard to fill positions.’

Bideleux said CAD design and project vacancies were becoming particularly hard to fill, while rates for contract work had risen. ‘Recent takeovers such as Tata’s acquisition of Land Rover Jaguar have had no real effect on recruitment. If anything, it has increased. Britain has a great reputation for its technical design centres and high-class engineers. Much design work is being carried out in the UK.’

New product developments are also keeping demand strong. Cummins’ Proctor said: ‘Continued development of current and future product is fundamental to our business plan and the work being done at our UK technical centres forms a key part of this. Legislative changes and emerging markets have stimulated growth in our requirements for design and development engineers aligned to recent record company performance across the globe.

‘Recent expansion of the development facilities at our Darlington Technical Centre has increased its capabilities and has positioned the facility for future opportunities.’

In terms of the type of staff being sought, Proctor said existing and new workload was leading to a demand for skilled and experienced design, application and development engineers at senior and technical specialist levels across a broad range of disciplines, including base engine or engine system design and development, combustion, emissions, cooling, after treatment, installation, and noise and vibration specialities.

And demand for engineers is not confined to the commercial sector. In the military arena, General Dynamics is engaged on a number of UK and international programmes to deliver complex C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) future network-enabled capabilities. It is also developing armoured fighting vehicle designs for the upcoming UK FRES programme and is recruiting strongly.

The FRES fleet is expected to comprise five families of vehicles: utility, reconnaissance, fires, manoeuvre support and a family of simpler variants known as the ‘basic capability unit’. The total of as many as 3,000 vehicles will include up to 2,000 utility vehicles. It is the UK’s largest ever army acquisition programme, with a value of about £16bn and through-life costs of £60bn, with the Ministry of Defence targeting an initial operating capability for FRES in 2012.

FRES is a major opportunity for General Dynamics as a vehicle developer and prime systems integrator. ‘We are looking for a range of engineers, from automotive systems to vehicle systems engineers,’ said Graham Morgan, principal engineer at the company. ‘These people will be working on the design and architecture of vehicles and systems that will be used for the next five to 10 years. Although the number of people eventually taken on will depend on the size of the contract, we are seeking top engineers from the defence industry, the automotive industry and the heavy automotive sector.’

But recruitment will not take place only at the start of the contract. ‘We will continue a rolling recruitment programme as various releases occur through the contract,’ said Mark Fullard, recruitment manager at General Dynamics. ‘The numbers recruited will therefore increase over time.’

The amount of work generated by FRES should not be underestimated, said Morgan. ‘This is the single largest MoD land systems project since World War II,’ said Morgan. ‘To be involved at the design stage is a great attraction for people. It’s not like working on a production line — here you can have a hand in from an early stage, and that’s something that will give people a huge sense of achievement.’

Fullard added: ‘Within the project, those working on it will be starting with a blank sheet of paper. However, they will be working with certain constraints, such as expected weight. They therefore need to be top-range engineers able to meet a big challenge.’

From MoD contracts to continued expansion of the vehicle ranges produced by consumer brands, no matter which country owns them, demand for skilled automotive engineers has remained strong. Traditional brands may be changing ownership, but it is clear the cachet provided by the involvement of British design teams is worth preserving, and that is why car makers are still recruiting strongly despite ownership changes.

Cummins’ Proctor said: ‘As an organisation committed to development of new technology within our field as a means of securing current and future business opportunities, we need to ensure we have the right people aligned with the right work. British engineers have demonstrated the required abilities and approach to help develop technologies and products demanded by the market place and Cummins has a good record of exporting this experience and expertise to other company entities in emerging and existing markets.

‘However, this ability is not exclusive. The engineering community is a global one and for our organisation to continue to be successful, we need the continuity of supply of good engineers who we can develop and grow to deliver our requirements for the future.

‘Experience and the ability to transfer and link ideas, especially in the engine design and development arenas, are key to Cummins and the heritage of British engineers in these areas is strong. I see good opportunities for British engineers with the right skills and values in these key areas across all levels, from technician through to lead and technical specialist roles.’