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Is UK PLC doing enough to help graduates enter the automotive industry?

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According to Engineering UK, the UK needs to produce 1.82m new engineers between 2012 and 2022 to remain competitive, with an annual shortfall of 55,000 skilled workers. To meet demand, the UK needs to double the number of engineering graduates and apprentices entering the industry.

The challenges for the automotive industry here are vast. My colleague Paul Frisby has written about the opportunities (and the difficulties) the UK automotive industry faces as it increasingly needs to attract elite professionals in data science.  In a different blog, David Watts discusses the fantastic opportunities presented by traditional apprenticeships for certain roles. There is no question that a reappraisal of what apprenticeships can do, and for whom, is in order.

But my own experience over the last few years has been with graduates, and I’m interested in the role the UK’s government, education and businesses have to play in the future of graduate employment, especially for our automotive industry.

No two graduates will experience the same journey in their career, but there are a couple of well-worn routes for graduates entering engineering careers. A minority win entry onto graduate development schemes with major OEMs, often brands renowned for their development practices. Most won’t make it onto these schemes, and will eventually be hired as entry level starters, where their journey through a business is often different to those who have been earmarked for rapid progression and development through a graduate scheme. And of course for younger people there are apprenticeships.

It’s not the graduates’ fault that these different pathways tend to produce different levels of opportunity and, quite often, different kinds of professional. Broadly speaking, the beneficiaries of graduate schemes, by the time they complete them, are rich in relevant experience and have the opportunity to be moulded by their employers – not unlike apprentices. They often progress quickly and gain broad experience across the board. For example, technical engineering graduates may spend time in chassis, powertrain, and design.

Graduates outside of dedicated intake schemes are often taken on for contract roles and spend their time working on tasks or projects within a single segment or business function. As such, they can have fewer opportunities to develop into future top-flight talent: large businesses like their seniors to have had exposure to a variety of departments or disciplines, resulting in well-rounded leaders who understand how different parts of an organisation fit together to produce the whole.

Of course leaders can be made in many ways and can come from anywhere, but it’s fair to say that graduate schemes are set up to identify, develop and (often) fast-track young people. It’s inevitable that some great people will fall through the cracks with this system. Competition for graduate schemes is immensely high, so only a tiny percentage of the available annual graduate talent pool can make it.

With so many industry seniors due to retire in the next decade, it’s the beneficiaries of graduate development schemes that are likely to be promoted quickly into the more senior roles to “plug the gap” within organisations. This in turn means less time for the standard entrants to learn their trade. They will end up with a smaller window in which to gain the less focused experience available to them, and to realise their potential without becoming out of their depth.

Addressing the challenge

There are some encouraging and interesting attempts to identify and develop potential in the UK.  James Dyson’s approach to the skills shortage has been to tackle the problem head on. He founded the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, based in Wiltshire (UK), which takes on “A” level students and puts them through a Bachelor of Engineering Degree, where they split their time between studying and work, gaining invaluable experience in the practical application of their skills and knowledge.

This allows Dyson not just to deliver a quality education (professors of technology from Warwick University work with Dyson’s own top engineers to deliver education in-house at the academy) but to benefit from the ideas and talent of young people even as it develops them.  As the academy website says, “Why wait until graduation when you could start developing new technologies now?”

Who wouldn’t want successive generations of engaged, qualified, inspired and useful employees well-versed in in-house technology and encouraged from the outset to learn by experimenting? The benefits to both employer and employee in an enterprise like this are clear.

Orthodox graduate training has long acknowledged the value of work experience. Engineering graduates whose course includes an industrial placement can spend time within the industry, meaning they often graduate with some idea of what they want to do. Graduate schemes for engineers often include a six-month rotational placement, resulting in well-rounded engineers. This presents some graduates with opportunities to refine and pursue their ambitions.

Many European students will spend five or six years studying for their engineering degree, which will give them one to two years in a placement, making them much more attractive to employers. Should industrial placements be mandatory on UK engineering courses?

Size matters

When a graduate comes to the end of their BA or Master’s degree, they apply to graduate schemes. Large OEMs are in a position to capitalise on this talent, because they have the time and resources to put candidates through assessment centres and on-board an influx of their preferred candidates. Although there are limited spaces on graduate schemes, some of the better-known automotive manufacturers may take on several hundred graduates in a round. Others may take on tens rather than hundreds. But many thousands will apply.

Could bigger businesses team up with smaller businesses who need internships? If there is little or no competition between them, but they each need similar skills, could not some arrangement be sought that allows graduates to gain valuable experience by working in other companies?

How and why companies miss out

There are trends that simply don’t make sense given the shortage of engineers.  I’ve seen plenty of graduates miss out because they’ve decided to travel. Even though they’ve got a 2:1 or a First, they’ve been ignored because they have been deemed not driven enough to enter straight into the world of work. How sensible is this approach? And smaller businesses such as consultancies, who are crying out for specialist staff, could give graduates the “graduate scheme” experience even though they lack the infrastructure for such schemes in the formal sense. Simply hire people with great potential and give them a lot of dedicated support, coaching and development within their chosen specialism. Graduate intake schemes don’t need to be solely the preserve of sizeable corporations.  

With a shortage of engineering skills and (more generally in all functions and sectors) time to real-world competence being two of the biggest challenges for the talent economy in the UK today, there’s so much more that education and business can do for graduates and young people entering the market today.