500,000 people going to University and there is STILL a shortage of GOOD engineers? 24 August 2016

In my last blog I told you that the NMA Mosler had its new engine and should be on track soon – I was not there on the test day before the Donington round but I got the message that the car had been wheeled away; despite all the very best preparations it had a weeping weld on the dry sump oil tank and so would be a non-starter. Silverstone on September 10th and it will be there.

The team did get a trio of 2nd place finishes in the Lotus though showing excellent speed, strategy and teamwork throughout the weekend. Our driver Gareth Downing even got voted “Driver of the Meeting”. Well done Team.

NMA Lotus Evora, Donington 2016

Anyway, let’s get back to the subject in my title – how is it possible that so many young people can be going to University and yet we are still struggling to find enough engineers – I decided to check out the headline and see whether it is true or just hearsay and if true, is it just the UK that is suffering?

Up and down the pit lane I am constantly hearing that applicants for advertised race team jobs are not up to scratch and from this is made myth and legend. Whilst at Donington I delved deeper and asked more about the job advertised or the place being offered and got some similar but subtly different responses that I fell start to get to the bottom of the headline problem.

If I pick on a particular position that is currently unfilled; “Fred” is retiring at the end of the season and he has 25 years’ experience on Porsche 911/996/997 race car variants, with a real flair for geometry setup. He has been with the team for 10 years this season. The team have put out the word as well as advertised formally and all season have been seeing applicants in the race unit or on race weekends. None of these formal and informal chats have amounted to anything because the applicants are “nowhere near as good as Fred”.

The clue is in the last half sentence – “nowhere near as good as Fred”. Well, I don’t want to be pedantic (But you’re going to be, I can tell. Ed), but Fred has 25 years’ experience and 10 years with the team; I reckon that would make him as unique as Lonesome George, the Galapagos tortoise. (Check your facts, Lonesome George WAS unique, he has been dead for 4 years; I hope you are not saying that “Fred” has been as well! Ed). On that basis finding a replacement isn’t going to happen. “Fred” is a long serving niche player in a niche market. The universe of suitable candidates is probably less than a dozen in all forms of motorsport and then they must be in England, want to move positions and see the point of doing so, before even deciding whether they would fit into the new team and all the associated debris that comes with that type of thing.

Having established that dinosaur do-do is more commonly found than another “Fred” we have, in my view, nullified the complaint for this case. “Freds” are made and trained and time served, they are not popped out of the University sausage machine. It is my view that a professional team owner with a professional team (like this one is) should be looking further than the next sponsor, next driver or next race meeting and having knowledge of his staff and their ages should be “on the case” when it comes to training and education. After all, one of the biggest single risks to a race team is the lack of qualified staff; It is a race teams Unique Selling Point; staff that have an edge on others in the pitlane. Staff that can help win!

The next unfilled position I looked at is at a motorsport factory that specialises in gearboxes. Having ordered a new piece of high end manufacturing equipment there is no-one “spare” to work with it yet. There is now £500,000 of kit sitting unused for the sake of a trained person. The problem being that they say they cannot get the skilled people they need and the people coming out of traditional university courses want to be paid big money with no experience. This employer hasn’t so far decided to train his own staff from scratch with the result that he has lengthening delivery times and is turning work away. He told me that the skills gap as he sees it could devastate his business and how sorry he is that he did not take on school leavers and start training them himself. I think he is correct and in recognising the issue now he has, assuming he acts on it, probably saved his business.

Again this example has, in my view debunked the horror stories - Whilst getting a replacement person may well be difficult, it is incorrect to suggest that the issue lies with the recent graduates; they may well have been educated correctly but no University is going to have the exactly the piece of kit you need your new employee to be proficient on – you need to have a training plan in place and take candidates that show potential to be exactly what you want surely? Now if that means not taking a graduate because he has inflated ideas of his worth then what about a school leaver? Whilst training with you they can be taking an online degree course (so you don’t lose productivity or training time) and gaining their qualifications as part of the employment package; that way you get a motivated, experienced, qualified individual that works for you and with you rather than having to troll through a desk full of CV’s and complain that not one of them is suitable.

It is not just the UK where a skills gap is holding back business – the Price Waterhouse Coopers’ 16th Annual Global CEO Survey revealed that “50 percent of surveyed automotive CEOs expressed concern about the availability of essential skills”, and in finding this and being concerned by its potential and real impact on their businesses, “63 percent planned to increase their investments in the creation of a skilled workforce”.

Further recent research (Global Workforce Index) by Kelly Services shows that “overall, workers in the automotive industry placed high value on career advancement guidance and upskilling opportunities. In addition, almost 80 percent of engineers value on the job experience over continued education and professional certifications. By offering mentorship arrangements in which new hires work alongside older employees, companies tap into their existing human capital to train new talent. Moreover, arrangements like these facilitate the transferal of knowledge from older workers to new.” If we go back to “Fred”……this research seems to tick those boxes.

Most of the people that I know in motorsport engineering are bright, keen and willing and so the engineering skills gap seems, in part, to be one that management have walked into by not further educating and upskilling their existing workers and starting new hires on a training program that utilises the older workers knowledge and skills. Whilst I freely acknowledge and agree with IMechE that more people are retiring than coming into the engineering industry across the board (a 69,000 annual shortfall currently according to them) as baby boomers retire, I think the obsession with everyone having to go to University to “be a success” and coming out with a degree where there are a surplus of candidates to positions (c 20,000 psychology in 2015 according to the IET) is not helping our engineering cause.

 

Engineers are made not born so someone taken on after school, educated via online learning such as our NMA BSc in Motorsport Engineering, whilst working, being trained in how and what the employers wants them to learn, provides huge opportunity for both employer and employee to get what they both want out the engineering and motorsport business.

See you at Silverstone…….

Roger Grimshaw - NMA Tutor