While it may appear that the economy is languishing in the wake of the recession, an area at the heart of British manufacturing continues to turn the tide. The British auto industry, once a symbol of the country’s decline, is now experiencing a kind of renaissance.
In the last 18 months, almost all of the companies involved in the automotive industry in the UK have grown their businesses. Among the most significant moves is that of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) which announced the creation of more than 5,500 new jobs, supply contracts of more than £ 3bn and an investment of £ 355m. at a new low emission engine plant in the Midlands.
BMW has also invested in the UK with £ 500million in new plant and equipment at its MINI assembly plant, the Hams Hall engine plant and the press plant in Swindon. Likewise, Honda has announced a £ 267million investment for new models and engines at its Swindon plant and Nissan has confirmed a £ 420million investment in its Sunderland plant.
The revival of the industry is all the more remarkable given the serious situation facing many car manufacturers in continental Europe. Companies like Peugeot, Fiat and Renault have been hit in recent months by waves of weak demand, severe overcapacity and a lack of financing. OEMs, it seems, are increasingly concerned about the risks to mainland Europe but remain drawn to the UK’s long-term stability.
In view of this trend, career opportunities for UK automotive engineers are both numerous and varied, with positions available throughout the value chain. As technology advances in areas such as low-carbon development, systems integration and communication with vehicles, a wider range of skills are needed to meet demand. James Marco, professor of automotive engineering at Cranfield University, has already seen a shift in focus.
“If you look at automotive jobs, most of them are probably aimed at people working in power electronics, software or control engineering – areas traditionally outsourced by the company. automotive industry or who are just not interested in it, ”said Marco. “No one sees a vehicle as just a collection of mechanical components anymore. It becomes much more of a system. Automotive engineers now have to understand things that go far beyond their traditional technological limits. ‘
In the move towards low-carbon vehicles, for example, the Automotive Council has identified the internal combustion engine, lightweight materials, electronics and energy storage as four key research areas for the future. . All of this will require a multidisciplinary team of qualified engineers, who are not only able to understand the needs of others, but also to effectively communicate their ideas to those outside their area of expertise.
Sam Akehurt, Senior Lecturer in Automotive Engineering at the University of Bath, is excited about the opportunities this could bring: “The CO2 challenge will only increase over time, causing technologies that currently appear speculative to gain traction. as credible alternatives. The research needed to advance these concepts offers great scope for graduates entering the profession. Whatever approaches are targeted, the vehicles will be much more complex.
Mike Gray, who manages the Engineering Employability and Placement Unit at Coventry University, points out that the fast-paced nature of the industry is conducive to innovation. He notes that shorter project completion times allow engineers working in the automotive industry to see how their work contributes to the company’s production more immediately than those working in fields such as aerospace. One factor, he said, that helps retain talent in the industry once they’re there.
But attracting that talent in the first place continues to be a problem for the industry. Given the level of demand in the sector, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) is concerned that the UK does not have the resources to deliver the engineering excellence investors expect. In the group’s recent “Capturing Opportunity” report, he noted that the UK engineering skills shortage is now reaching critical levels in key industrial areas.
The government has taken a number of practical steps to overcome this problem. According to the SMMT, the number of engineering students graduating rose to 23,907 in 2011, from 20,631 in 2007. The learning targets were also exceeded in the current Parliament’s first fiscal year. However, he stressed that the UK needs to do much more to ensure the continued health of the sector.
Gray believes the solution is for employers in the automotive industry to provide students with more industrial experience through apprenticeship, work placement, and internship programs. “The most cost-effective way to attract and retain talent is to help them develop and retain the company during the process,” he said. “Many employers expect job-ready graduates with business knowledge and in-depth knowledge of industrial processes. Industry, employers and academia must work in partnership to make this a reality. ‘
While this will help engage those who are already interested in the industry, the benefits of the automotive sector need to be highlighted more aggressively by those working in the sector. According to Marco, no other area of engineering can offer the same level of excitement and challenge as the automotive industry. “Granted, what first attracted me were the fast cars… but now the appeal is in understanding the complexity of machines and the unique demands placed on them. If you are interested in engineering, you would be hard pressed to find a more multidisciplinary field than the automotive industry. ‘
Overall, UK vehicle production is expected to grow 9% annually to reach 2.2 million in 2016. Last year the UK produced 1.4 million vehicles, with over 80% of current production exported to markets around the world. The supply chain that powers these OEMs is also seeing an increase in demand with £ 3bn of sourcing opportunities currently identified for UK-based companies. If the UK is to continue the success of the industry, a similar spike in recruitment urgently needs to take place.
The revival of the UK automotive industry has demonstrated investor confidence in high-end UK engineering. UK institutions must now show the same faith in their own engineers as they work together to promote the rewarding future that awaits those who work in the sector.