SMMT Summit highlights skills shortage issue as industry manifesto launched

The UK automotive industry is facing a number of challenges across multiple sectors, and the SMMT has launched a new report, calling on any future government to take certain steps in order to ensure the economic benefits of the market.

The industry body announced the launch of Manifesto 2030: Automotive Growth for a zero-emission future at the SMMT International Automotive Summit, held in London. The event was attended by representatives from around the sector, with speakers covering several industry areas, including the aftermarket. 

From electrification of the market to a skills shortage that threatens the uptake of these technologies, the UK automotive industry continues to face more challenges, and has done so for longer than most other markets. Even Brexit continues to threaten, with the Rules of Origin mandate, part of the Free-Trade Agreement with the EU, unlikely to be met by the end-of-year deadline.

Skills shortage presents problem

An area that the skills shortage is heavily impacting is the aftermarket, especially vehicle servicing. This industry has been going through a long upheaval thanks to changing technologies, long before the introduction of electric vehicles. Injection systems, electronic controls, connected technologies and fewer mechanical components mean those working in the market require additional and constant training. 

‘We have 175,000 technicians in the UK at present, Andy Hamilton, group CEO at LKQ Euro Car Parts, told the audience at the SMMT conference. ‘There are 23,000 vacancies. when you then look at the capabilities of the existing group, they are not yet ready for new technology to come in through. For example, with advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), we have around 3,000 technicians in the UK training at present, but within the next seven years we will need 106,000. We have the same challenged with EV and hybrid technology.’

Andy Turbefield, head of quality at Halfords, suggested reasons as to why the aftermarket is struggling with a skills shortage and balancing the workforce. ‘Our vehicle technicians are not getting any younger,’ he stated. ‘As such, they perhaps do not want to engage in so much training on the new technologies that are coming through. 

‘We should also be seeing many apprentices qualifying who started their roles two and three years ago. Unfortunately, during COVID-19, many apprentices fell out of employment, as did other people, meaning they are not there to bring new skills to the market.’

Having skilled workers coming into the industry is not just about finding the right people, but is also about ensuring the aftermarket is attractive as a place to work. 

‘The technician skills shortage is well known,’ commented Simon Villanueva, director of legal and public affairs at Volvo Trucks. ‘But we have an image problem. The image of a technician in greasy overalls is history now, but people still perceive it that way.

‘Diversity is also an issue. We have an aging male workforce, and we need to chance that. At Volvo, we are working hard to make sure all our sites have facilities available for female technicians, even if we do not have them there, because it is what we must do, to ensure that when we do bring a diverse workforce in, we are ready.’

Unfortunately, during COVID-19, many apprentices fell out of employment.

Andy Turbefield, Halfords

Villanueva also pointed to problems with the UK’s apprenticeship schemes. ‘It is a fantastic scheme,’ he stated, ‘but the amount of funding allowed for technician training is not enough. We used to have 100 colleges delivering technician training in the UK. There is less than 40 now, and it is reducing constantly because they cannot make it work on the funding available.’

An attractive place to work

The aftermarket is also facing a challenge seen across the entire automotive industry, that of attracting talent in different fields than it is used to, and therefore competing with other markets. Today’s motoring world is one of software and coding alongside the mechanical, something that is adding to the skills shortage. 

‘We are competing with many different industries that are faster than automotive, even when you are looking at software engineers, for example,’ added Helen Foord, head of global government affairs at McLaren Automotive. ‘There is a real short-term issue, and we have to look elsewhere, including outside the UK.’

‘It is a fact that our sector is now in competition with sectors that maybe youngsters find a little bit more glamorous than automotive,’ added Julia Muir, founder of the Automotive 30% Club. ‘If they want to work in technology, are they thinking of working in Google or Facebook rather than working in automotive?’

Halfords highlighted the issue in the SMMT report, with a case study commenting: ‘There is an ever-greater demand for STEM-based competencies as existing roles evolve from traditional hands-on, heavy labour to wiring diagrams and data analysis. Positively, the changing profile of these jobs also opens the sector to greater diversity and opportunities to attract a wider range of candidates with differing abilities. But the aftermarket must now balance servicing the existing UK car parc from combustion engine to hybrid to the growing zero-emission fleet.’

Ensuring the talent to tackle the skills shortage is there to begin with is also important. “Every political party talks of jobs and the jobs that will be created in a green economy, and a lot are attributed to the automotive sector and the transition that will happen,” SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes told the assembled press. “But to fill those jobs, we need the skills. So, we need to develop the future talent, more STEM education, better training, and a dynamic immigration system that attracts global talent.”

Automotive transformation

The UK faces a general election at some point within the next 18 months, and the SMMT report works as a launchpad for each party, providing five manifesto pledges to slot into their campaigns, all of which will help the automotive industry in the UK. These include: 

  • A Green Automotive Transformation Strategy for a stronger economy
    Publish a Green Automotive Transformation Strategy that supercharges UK Automotive to achieve net zero. A strategy which enables innovation, attracts investment and secures manufacturing of clean technologies in the UK to deliver economic growth and zero emission mobility.
  • Net-zero mobility for everyone
    Foster a reliable and affordable UK-wide recharging and refuelling network through binding targets complemented by a motor tax and regulatory system that ensures no one is left behind in the transition to net zero.
  • Green skills for a greener future
    Offer the skills workers want, by creating a one-stop-shop national upskilling platform, and develop the future talent that business needs, combined with greater STEM education in schools and a dynamic immigration system that attracts global talent.
  • Made in Britain – Made for the world
    Position automotive and advanced manufacturing supply chains at the core of UK trade policy and market access. Secure access to global markets for tariff-free export of British-made vehicles, batteries and green technologies, and deliver export support services that allow businesses of all sizes to succeed.
  • Powering the UK clean tech revolution
    Ensure net zero-critical industries such as automotive are able to access affordable and internationally cost-competitive zero emission energy to power the clean tech revolution. Dedicated energy and investment measures should be available to make zero emission vehicle production and use a reality.

“We really felt it was the time to come up with those core items that we believe we can actually unify all parties to drive our industry,” SMMT director of policy and government affairs told the conference. “And there are really five pledges that we would like policymakers to unite behind.”

The prize for delivering all these pledges totals about £106 billion by 2030, especially if we can get the UK plants to be making EVs with battery production to support,” added Hawes. So, it is a win for the industry, it is a win for the government, and it is a win for the country. But to do it, to get it there, we need the right strategy.

‘That is an industrial strategy, one that enables innovation, attracts green manufacturing investment, scales up the EV supply chain and drives more of the net-zero vehicles that we produce and we import onto UK roads. £11 billion has been invested in UK EV and battery production. But obviously, we need to do more.”

The aftermarket also has a part to play, as LKQ Euro Car Parts stated in the SMMT report: “A strong aftermarket can also help more people make the switch by growing capabilities covering new powertrains and battery health which will foster a resilient second hand market, and strengthen the second and third life opportunities for electric vehicles and batteries.”

The theme of the SMMT conference was one of resilience, and the UK aftermarket is just that. The challenges the industry faces can be tackled together with the right backing, and if successful, the aftermarket will have an important role to play, not just in servicing the cars of the future, but keeping an aging car parc running as well. The industry is in a state of transition, and the aftermarket is key to linking everything together. 

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