The wheel deal

Despite gloomy economic news, the UK’s automotive industry continues to enjoy success – and employment prospects remain good. Julia Pierce reports.

In the current volatile economic climate it is reassuring to know that one sector of the UK’s economy is continuing to do well, particularly when news from much of the nation’s manufacturing base has been gloomy.

The automotive industry is a pivotal part of the UK manufacturing sector. According to the latest figures from the government’s Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), created last June to raise UK levels of productivity and create the conditions for business success and strengthen the economic performance of all the regions, the automotive manufacturing sector contributes around £9bn value-added to the economy. It also accounts for 0.8 per cent of GDP, 6.2 per cent of manufacturing value-added and 11 per cent of total UK manufactured exports.

BERR’s figures show that in 2006, 1.4 million cars and around 208,000 commercial vehicles were produced in the UK. Of these, 77 per cent of the cars and 66 per cent of the commercial vehicles were exported. Europe is the main destination, with significant sales in North America and Asia, while specialist luxury vehicles are sold to consumers worldwide.

The department notes that in the UK as a whole, some 210,000 people are employed in the design and manufacture of vehicles and components, and a further 570,000 in the motor trades that supply, service and repair vehicles. Within this group, recruitment activity is very strong at present.

‘Since October, the economic conditions haven’t actually made much of a difference to the market,’ said Mark Bideleux, a former chassis engineer and now automotive account manager at engineering consultancy Assystem (UK). ‘There are still a huge number of vacancies and a lack of candidates. I can’t think of any programmes that have been cancelled, despite the economic situation.’

A good example of a company continuing to expand is Bentley Motors, which is seeking to recruit more than 100 staff in all areas of engineering, including chassis and powertrain, whole vehicle, electrical, interior and bill of materials.

‘Bentley requires engineers to work on the development of future advanced model ranges, which will use the latest manufacturing technologies and vehicle systems,’ said Brian Gush, director of powertrain and chassis at Bentley. ‘Calibration engineers in all areas are in great demand, but we are also looking for engineers with specific skills who are able to work in areas where attention to detail is essential, such as interior.’

Of all the skills that are actively being pursued by employers, Bideleux said electrical engineers were the most sought, along with those skilled in using the CATIA V5 product development suite.

‘Before, there were perhaps three or four CAD systems that were in general use. However, CATIA V5 is now very much the most in demand. Despite this, the problem for those looking to take advantage of this by learning the system before applying is that employers are also looking for people with experience – just doing a course isn’t enough. It’s a vicious circle.’

While Bideleux has not seen any radical innovations recently in terms of additional benefits being offered to secure staff in a highly competitive marketplace, the number of employees receiving incentives to relocate has risen. ‘Relocation allowance is being quite freely offered at the moment,’ he said. ‘This is because firms are having to look outside their local area for employees with the right skills. It is even being offered to those with lower-level jobs — not just senior management.’

Elsewhere, alongside elements such as family-friendly working hours, existing staff are being targeted by interesting schemes to retain them. Land Roveroffers an Associate Development Scheme — a programme to help workers pursue non-job-related education, training and development of their choice in their own time. The £200 course budget can be used to pay for a structured course to further employees’ personal interests.

Meanwhile, working conditions are highly favourable for those who have entered the industry. ‘As part of the VW Group, Bentley can offer the usual benefits, opportunities and advantages of being employed by a large, successful automotive group,’ said Bentley’s Gush. ‘However, Bentley’s associates working at its Crewe headquarters are part of a close-knit, autonomous community enjoying access to most areas of the business without having to leave the site. And while Bentley is relatively small, engineers will be working with cutting-edge technologies for our future models.’

It is not just the market for permanent staff that is expanding, meaning that employers of contract staff must make sure rates are competitive in order to attract the right candidates. Assystem’s Bideleux said that in the contract market, a small difference in hourly rate could make quite an impact on potential candidates. ‘We are also seeing contracts being offered on a longer-term basis than before. Most are six to 12 months, whereas previously they were two to three months long. This owes much to the amount of work that people have on, compared to three years ago,’ he added.

However, the longstanding problem of the UK’s engineering workforce is still having an effect on some areas of the market. ‘There is a particular demand for maintenance engineers, owing to the usual problems of an ageing population with a lot of retirees, particularly as a result of the physical nature of the job,’ said Adam Jones, principal consultant at manufacturing and engineering recruitment specialists Kinetic. He also notes that despite the overall buoyancy of the recruitment situation, car makers are still under the same pressures that are affecting their counterparts in other sectors of the economy, and this is having a knock-on effect on the engineering skills that are in particular demand.

‘Manufacturing engineers are in high demand owing to pressure to reduce costs,’ said Jones. ‘You can only reduce margins so much, so making manufacturing cost savings using manufacturing and process engineers to streamline operations is a good way to save money instead.’

Jones also notes that there is a shortage of design engineers in the so-called yellow goods sector, comprising heavy vehicles such as trucks. ‘They are needed for work on chassis, styling and bodywork,’ he explained, also pointing out that employees were increasingly being attracted by companies’ overall packages rather than take-home salary alone. ‘Caterpillar has had a massive upsurge of business owing to a growth in the number of construction projects,’ he noted. ‘It has a very good share scheme and though its salaries may not be at the top of the list, its overall package is very attractive.’

So, given that so much activity is taking place, do those recruiting within the market have any predictions as to which sectors might be most promising in the coming year? ‘The markets that will probably succeed are hybrids and 4x4s,’ predicted Kinetic’s Jones. ‘There are also rumours that Toyota is planning to bring out a replacement for the Previa. However, the squeeze will probably be felt by the Mondeo-sized vehicle market. The Ford Focus has taken the family market, while cars such as Audis are doing well as executive vehicles, leaving the executive saloon looking a little dated. But in all, the automotive market is very unpredictable.’

Bentley’s Gush reckons that: ‘With a few notable, well-funded exceptions, the UK’s low-volume car manufacturers will find it more difficult to flourish in key markets where legislation is becoming increasingly stringent. This is a great loss, since this sector was packed full of innovation and engineering excellence.’ Yet he believes larger companies such as his own will weather any downturn in the UK’s economy and resist calls for outsourcing of some aspects of the manufacturing process to reduce costs. ‘As part of VW Group, Bentley has not only been able to retain these qualities, but also its unique DNA — which can never be outsourced — despite the trend for global sourcing of components.’

As well as continuing to be home to seven major car manufacturers, many bus, truck and van producers and supporting the world’s most successful motorsport industry, the UK is also nurturing a number of leading independent automotive design firms. This has created a need for a large number of skilled engineers, despite a falling number of qualified market entrants.

It seems that unlike some other areas of manufacturing, the overall trend for the automotive sector is one of ongoing strength and strong demand for staff. For the foreseeable future, those with the right industry experience may have the luxury of choosing between a large number of high-quality employers with whom they could build a long-term career.

CASE STUDY: Catherine Bezant, Land Rover Jaguar

Catherine Bezant is a product analyst in Land Rover’s product strategy department. After completing a MEng materials Science and Engineering degree at Liverpool University, she joined jaguar Cars’ materials engineering department in 1999 as a graduate student.

‘Within the materials engineering department I had responsibility for the selection and specification of materials around the vehicle,’ she said. ‘This role required liaison with many functions across the automotive industry, interpreting design engineering needs and communicating engineering wants and restrictions to my customers. I worked closely with suppliers, developing new ideas and solving technical problems and was also involved in excellent knowledge-sharing activities across teams in Volvo and Ford.’

The technical side of her role involved identifying new areas for technical investigation then leading these projects, as well as visiting and liaising with suppliers across Europe. Her responsibilities then included co-ordinating and drawing-up test procedures and validation, as well as presenting results to senior forums in the company. ‘My work has enabled me to develop a whole range of business and technical skills, which have broadened my career horizons,’ she said. ‘I have been encouraged to question normal practices and procedures and to propose my own ideas, enabling me to champion initiatives such as lean methodologies across a department.’

Nine months ago, she joined the company’s product strategy department, focusing on the Land Rover vehicle line. Decisions made there can underpin the later success of the business. She explained: ‘There have been many challenges throughout my career, but what would life be without them? Working for a manufacturing company there are times when I have had to work fast and efficiently under pressure to resolve issues, but this has also created excitement and variation in my job, and it very rapidly strengthened my time and project management skills.’

During her time at Land Rover Jaguar, her further training developed a range of skills, from problem solving (Six Sigma quality tools), to local diversity training in the work force and a management foundation course. In 2007 she was nominated for the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s Young Female Engineer of the Year award.

‘I get satisfaction and recognition from seeing my ideas, projects and initiatives being accepted by the business and watching them be successfully adopted,’ she explained. ‘To be involved in producing just a part of one of the most luxurious cars on the road is very satisfying, especially when you can point at a certain area or aspect of the car and say, “I did that”.’