Revved up for automotive jobs

Contrary to the dismal picture painted by recent plant closures, the automotive industry is actively recruiting in the UK, writes Julia Pierce.


Ask the average person about the current state of recruitment in the automotive sector and you are likely to hear bad news. Plant closures at MG Rover and Peugeot’s Ryton facility have provided the sector with plenty of bad press over the past few years. In truth, however, this negative picture is very wide of the mark. Demand for skilled staff within the automotive sector is going strong.

‘The skilled automotive sector is very buoyant and busy with a lot of project work at the moment,’ said Mark Bideleux, a former chassis engineer and now automotive account manager at engineering consultant Assystem, with seven years’ experience of recruitment in the sector.

‘Most manufacturers in the UK are recruiting, including Bentley, McLaren, Nissan, Ford, Jaguar and Land Rover, as well as the tier I and II suppliers.’

Bideleux said the closure of MG Rover did affect the market, especially since its design houses were closed at the same time as the main plant, but many of its workers moved into the aerospace sector. Consequently, any effect on the automotive market was short-lived.

Meanwhile, despite consolidating their global operations, other carmakers are choosing to base major research and development plants within the UK. One notable example is that of Ford.

‘Dunton is becoming Ford’s powertrain centre of excellence,’ said Alison Clifton, human resources manager for the powertrain division at Ford’s Dunton, Essex, technical centre. Home to more than 5,000 designers, engineers and support staff, it is the largest automotive design and engineering facility in the UK. Since its opening, more than £4bn has been invested in the facility.

‘This move is to create over 100 vacancies in the powertrain division,’ added Clifton. ‘There will also be some jobs created in the diesel engine department at Ford’s Dagenham facility, working particularly around diesel combustion and engine components.’

Recognising that there may not be a vast amount of people with previous experience in this area, Ford is looking for people with an engineering degree but not necessarily powertrain experience, though this may provide a good opportunity for those who have worked on such projects in the aerospace sector to move over into the automotive industry.

Though recruitment will occur at all levels of experience, the company is keen to attract people who, although not straight from university, have perhaps a year or two’s engineering experience. The move is part of a general increase in recruitment by the company over the coming year.

‘Our focus is on sustainability and reducing emissions, so applicants with an interest in this will be particularly welcome,’ said Clifton. ‘We are growing the organisation at Dunton, so we are looking for everything from component engineers through to engine design and control, as well as those who want to work on limiting emissions.’

Such demand for engineers required to modify engines and limit emissions is being driven by both consumer demand for greener vehicles and government policies such as taxing vehicles that are the worst polluters, said Clifton.

However, finding the right people to fill these vacancies may not be straightforward. In contrast to the idea of a market where closures have flooded the sector with skilled workers looking for new positions, Bideleux notes the opposite is true.

‘People are taking their time with permanent and contract recruitment to find the best of the best. However, there is a severe lack of candidates,’ he said. ‘Many people are comfortable where they are and are not moving around the industry like they used to. They’re not sure what’s out there in terms of other jobs, so they don’t want to rock the boat. Design and project engineers are particularly hard to find.’

Despite its glamorous image, Formula One is feeling the brunt of this lack of potential employees, particularly in aerodynamics.

‘Aerodynamicists are the most sought after engineers in Formula One at the moment,’ said Sam Michael, technical director at WilliamsF1.

‘There is no specific reason for an increase in employment in this area recently as aerodynamics has a first order effect on the car performance, so it has the most attention from the company strategically. However, we have been expanding the aero department for five or six years now and we will continue to do so in the future.’

The company employs engineers in aerodynamics, mechanical design — where they will be dealing with gearbox, suspension, composites, stress analysis and electronics — and operations, including race, test and vehicle dynamics.

Michael says WilliamsF1 will continue looking for these aerodynamicists throughout the coming year, focusing on people with a specialism in areas including empirical-based test methods for car development, CFD specialists, model designers and draughtsmen. There is also a smaller, ongoing recruitment programme in mechanical design.

What are the reasons behind this increased need for such individuals? ‘It is because Formula One has expanded significantly in the past 10 years owing to car manufacturer involvement,’ explained Michael. ‘Teams have grown from around 80 people up to 600 over the past 10 years and the major expansion has been in the area of improving their aerodynamics.’

However, he notes changes and advances in the technologies used in the business mean that demand for some types of engineer is falling.

‘Recruitment of electronics engineers is in decline, because from 2008 Formula One cars will have standard electronics and no traction control,’ said Michael. ‘This will lower our requirement for this type of person.’

Though demand from this part of the industry may be levelling off or dropping, opportunities are opening up in other areas.

Now, demand for automotive engineers is also coming from the military. General Dynamics is recruiting staff to work on its contract to build and service vehicles for the Army, estimated to be worth between £14m and £17m immediately and up to £60m over its lifetime.

The firm is known as a specialist in business aviation, armaments and munitions and shipbuilding and marine systems, but also specialises in providing land and expeditionary combat vehicles and systems.

Developed to explore the use of a hybrid electric drive for the US Army’s Future Combat Systems programme, since 2005, the company has been testing the Advanced Hybrid Electric Drive (AHED) vehicle in the UK.

General Dynamics’ work is part of FRES — Future Rapid Effects System — the MoD’s programme to deliver a fleet of wheeled and tracked armoured vehicles to the Army that is network-enabled, capable of operating across the spectrum of operations and protected against the most likely threats.

The vehicles are expected to be in service for up to 40 years, meaning that any employment based around this will be long term.

While some narrow sections of the industry may be closing off to new entrants, with the expanding of research and development facilities by major manufacturers, as well as the awarding of major automotive-based contracts by the armed forces, the overall status of employment in the automotive sector is looking remarkably healthy.

Whether you are looking for work in the world of racing, or would prefer to work on reducing the environmental impact of the family saloon, it seems there is plenty of work for both experienced engineers and relatively new entrants.