In the Limelight

June 2, 2016

Alison Cowie examines the solutions proposed for filling the skills gap in the North East automotive sector.

The automotive sector – like many other industries – is facing a skills gap that only looks set to increase thanks to the combined effect of new technology and an ageing workforce.

The North East Automotive Alliance (NEAA) predicts that there could be up to £20 billion invested into the UK automotive sector in the next five to ten years, creating between 50,000 and 100,000 jobs.

The region, which already houses the largest and most productive car manufacturing plant in the UK and innovative new technology facilities such as The Future Technology Centre, therefore needs to address its skills gap now if it is to successfully compete for its fair share of the spoils.

There is increasing agreement that the sector must develop the automotive skills pool within the region and that this requires a partnership between education and industry.

Matt Boyle, CEO of Sevcon, says: “Local industrialists need to decide what we need and when we need it by. That level of detail isn’t going to come from politicians, it has to come from the people who are working in the North East automotive industry, day in, day out.

“We then have to work with the providers to make sure the right training is made available to us.”

The NEAA has sought to forge this relationship by creating a skills group of 32 industrialists and 14 training providers.

With the Sevcon CEO as its chairman, the group has highlighted four key areas where action should be taken.

The first is to develop the current workforce and equip them with the required skills for future developments.

Gateshead College works closely with a number of automotive companies to create specialist packages of training.

Zachary Aldridge, assistant principle for STEM subjects, says: “Some larger employers, such as Nissan, will know exactly what training they require, while other, smaller automotive companies tend to need more guidance from us.

“We work closely with them and create bespoke training packages that address their needs, while also fitting within funded frameworks.”

Matt reveals that, at Sevcon, every member of staff has their own development programme with required training put in place.

“It’s important to us that our staff can see a clear career path at the company,” he says.

The second area highlighted by the NEAA skills group is apprenticeships.

The Government has pledged to support three million apprenticeships by 2020, and the proposed apprenticeship levy – due to come into force in April 2017 – is to help reach this target.

Many industrialists, however, are wary of the impact the levy will make.

North East LEP board member, David Land, reflects: “It’s going to make something that is already complex more complex.

“What we need is something that is more straightforward.”

Zachary Aldridge from Gateshead College agrees that the apprenticeship levy will probably not simplify the process, but sees the role of the college as providing clarification in this area.

“We recently created a steering group for the apprenticeship levy to help educate business owners about it and give them the confidence to take on apprenticeships,” he says.

Graduates are also perceived as key to building skills in the automotive sector.

Sevcon sponsors talented students at Northumbria and Newcastle University through their degrees, masters and even PHD studies, to ensure there is a pipeline of highly skilled people coming through into the business.

“We know these skills are highly marketable but we counter this by making sure the work they go on to do at Sevcon is interesting and challenging,” Matt says.

The final factor highlighted by the NEAA is encouraging the future workforce at school level.

David Land, who has worked at senior levels in the automotive and manufacturing sectors, agrees: “We need to get more awareness of engineering careers into schools and show them what opportunities are available and what kind of lifestyle can be achieved.”

Matt Boyle maintains that filling the skills gap in the North East automotive sector will not happen overnight, but insists that work must be done now.

He says: “If we don’t address the skills gap, the automotive sector in the North East is never going to reach its potential. It would be a crying shame – given the opportunities out there – if we don’t.

“But I am reassured that all the industrialists I know are working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

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