Spoilt for choice

Contrary to popular belief, the car industry in the UK is flourishing.

Contrary to popular belief, the car industry in the UK is flourishing and from an employment point of view is going from strength to strength.

This is due to over 40 vehicle manufacturers, ranging from global volume companies to small, specialist vehicle builders, which are now using this country as a production base — showing that the UK is not only diverse but also world class.

Over the past 30 years, the UK has developed an international automotive sector. Following the problems in the industry in the mid-seventies, the arrival of Japanese manufacturers gave provided a much-needed boost as Nissan’s Sunderland plant was quickly followed by Toyota’s new base in Derbyshire and Honda’s Swindon factory. Now, the UK has modern plants, good industrial relations and a workforce that can make cars cheaply, efficiently and well.

Despite the collapse of MG Rover and the later closure of Peugeot’s Ryton plant, the sector has bounced back, producing a turnover of £48.8bn in 2007 and employing 820,000 workers.

More good news has also come thick and fast. Following investment of £125m by its parent company, this year the Nissan Qashqai rolled off the production line. It is the first all-new product to be designed, engineered and built by Nissan in the UK. Meanwhile, Ford has invested £129m at its Southampton facility for the production of the new Ford Transit, a vehicle again completely designed and developed in this country. All this activity is greatly increasing the number of vacancies.

According to those within the industry, it is recruiting strongly across the board. ‘It has been incredibly busy this year,’ said Mark Bideleux, automotive account manager at engineering consultancy Assystem (UK).

‘We are seeing the busiest time for a decade across the whole of the UK’s automotive business. One reason for this is that new vehicles are being developed as opposed to refreshment of old designs.’

Customers certainly seem to be excited. In September, the number of new ’57’ plates registered exceeded expectations, with volumes rising 1.3 per cent, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT).

Demand for cleaner, more efficient vehicles has never been stronger. The SMMT’s figures showed that in September 2007 diesel registrations rose 6.7 per cent to 167,031 units, while registrations of alternatively-fuelled vehicles jumped by a very impressive 82.1 per cent.

‘Legislation is bringing about production changes,’ said Alan Beazley, head of Assystem’s UK automotive business unit. ‘As well as new controls on emissions, there are EU rules on pedestrian safety to take into account. More research and development is required to meet these requirements so more people are being recruited.’

‘The products we make at Leyland are market-leaders in most sectors in which we compete,’ said Denis Culloty, chief engineer at the company, which is now part of international truck manufacturer Paccar. ‘We are working on a number of technology projects, including low-emission, fuel-efficient trucks, hybrid drive solutions and new body and structure developments, along with new product developments for emerging markets.’

This project workload means the company needs to grow its engineering resource at an even faster rate than originally planned. ‘We’re looking for people across all disciplines, including chassis, power unit, cab and body design, and also electronics development,’ added Culloty. ‘We look for candidates with relevant automotive design and development experience, ideally in a similar business scale.’

Independent motorcycle design company Vepro is also feeling the benefits of the upturn in the industry. It is looking for degree-qualified mechanical engineers, and also has some CAD modelling vacancies. Successful applicants will be working on designs for vehicles including motorbikes, snowmobiles and quad bikes aimed at customers in north America and China.

The market is buoyant,’ said Rick Cronk, the firm’s technical director. ‘While legislation was a big driver last year, competition is now the main factor… Motorsport is a very good niche cottage industry and for prototyping, we are very well placed within the UK.’

Meanwhile, Honda is seeking new project and process engineers, who will be working with new systems in the company. ‘The new project and process engineers will be looking at the design, installation and purchasing of new equipment,’ said Andrea Rogers, administration co-ordinator for associate services at Honda, which has just opened its £24m logistics operation in Swindon. ‘However, these are very specialist roles and it is hard to find the right people.’

The lack of suitable candidates is being felt across the industry. ‘We have had difficulty finding engineers with electrical and maintenance experience, due to the general market shortage in the UK,’ said Claire Edwards, specialist-senior in Toyota’s recruitment department. ‘We are one of the world’s leading car manufacturers with a production system that is world-renowned. Engineers joining the company would have the opportunity to learn via our leading-edge methodology and structured problem-solving techniques.’

Certainly, the company’s range of benefits should prove tempting to those seeking work. ‘We offer a first-class benefits package, which includes a competitive salary, pension and life assurance, attractive car schemes, paid overtime, 25 days of paid annual holiday plus bank holidays, company sickness benefit scheme, free workwear, subsidised restaurants, a workplace nursery and relocation assistance,’ she added.

Despite this, those in the market for a new position have plenty of vacancies from which to choose. ‘This is certainly a candidate-driven market,’ said Assystem’s Beazley. ‘The problem is finding people to fill the roles. For instance, cars rely on electronics more now than ever before, so people with such skills are in high demand.’

‘Computer skills are also at a premium,’ added Bideleux. ‘The need for computer-aided stress and durability analysis, for instance, means that there are a lot of simulations involved now.’

Unfortunately, the industry’s chequered history is still having an impact on recruitment. ‘Finding people with skills that have been gained from apprenticeship level can be difficult,’ said Honda’s Rogers. ‘The problem stems from the days when apprentices couldn’t find jobs and so stopped coming through. Such people may not have taken the university route but instead have become multi-skilled, with both mechanical and engineering skills on the job. They may be the only maintenance person on their shift, so they have to be able to solve any sort of problem.’

‘Degrees are perhaps not what they used to be,’ added Nicola Mann, human resources manager at Delphi Diesel Systems. ‘A lot of people have taken combined degrees, such as engineering with marketing, but it means their relevant knowledge has been reduced and this is a problem.’

With many companies in other sectors looking to move their production and assembly abroad, there may be a perception among industry entrants that to remain competitive, automotive firms may be the next in line to transfer their business to eastern Europe or beyond.

‘People still have a fear of the car industry owing to Peugeot and MG Rover’s problems,’ said Rogers. ‘However, we have invested strongly in the UK recently and are not going [to move] anywhere. ‘

For those worried that production may shift east to countries with lower wages to cut costs, there are words of reassurance.

‘It can be problematic recruiting in eastern Europe as the technologies used there are not the same,’ said Delphi’s Mann.

But for those employed in the car sector, the rewards are self-evident. Honda currently has over 50 engineering vacancies from all disciplines. ‘You will be working with highly-skilled engineers at the top of their game,’ said Rogers.

‘There is also a high level of responsibility. After three years’ experience, it is possible to manage entire projects. Staff also qualify for a lease car after three years, and there is overtime available to everyone up to management level.’

The company also recognises the ability to innovate. ‘We run programmes such as our technical festival,’ said Rogers. ‘In this, engineers are encouraged to come up with ideas and if these are selected, they can travel to the EU or Japan and their ideas may even be patented.’

Successful applicants will also be working with cutting edge systems. ‘From an engineering perspective, the technology we are using here is very exciting and we are putting a lot of investment into developing new products,’ said Mann. ‘The company is growing very quickly and there are plenty of opportunities for engineers to come in and make a real difference to the technology, with a chance to see the fruits of their labour.’

‘The Leyland environment allows engineers to expand their horizons,’ added Culloty. ‘Typically, an engineer will be involved in a project from concept through development and detailed design into production and beyond. The role will bring opportunities to test and develop vehicles and to liaise with suppliers and customers around the world.’

Working within a global company also means that if they wanted to, staff could apply to work abroad. Leyland’s policy typifies this.

‘Opportunities also exist to work in other Paccar facilities globally,’ Culloty said. ‘Great opportunities exist for advancement within the team and also in other disciplines across the business.’

As well as a wide range of vehicle manufacturers, 17 out of the world’s top 20 component manufacturers have operations in the UK.

‘We are recruiting almost across the board, from production to manufacturing engineers, as well as having direct vacancies for positions in the manufacturing of our products,’ said Mann.

‘However, this recruitment process is proving difficult. For example, we have been looking for production operations managers for more than 12 months. It seems that the best people are not actively looking for work — and among those who are, salary expectations are out of line with experience.’

But where have all the candidates gone, and what can be done to alleviate the shortage? ‘The boom in the aerospace industry pulled a lot of people out of the automotive sector a few years ago,’ said Assystem’s Bideleux.

He noted that there are some hurdles to negotiate if such people are to be lured back into their original roles.

‘Given the skills required, their ability to return is not quite so natural. Also, rates of pay are not quite level and their skills have been watered down. However, salaries and benefits are now starting to move upwards as clients realise this is needed, despite pressure to minimise the cost of vehicles.’

Considering the upward pressure on wages and the host of other benefits on offer, for those with the relevant skills and a desire to work in the car industry, it seems there could not be a better time to come