Aftermarket’s recruitment problem: how to buck the trend

The automotive sector has a problem both recruiting and retaining employees.

As we reported last month, the automotive aftermarket is in an employment pit with vacancy rates at 4.3 per 100 employees, which equates to 43% above the average for all sectors.

Causes

Steve Nash, CEO of the IMI believes that there are several factors that contributing to recruitment and retention issues. In particular, he picks out the aftereffects of COVID and Brexit, but says that the problem is broader.  He says that “automotive is in transition with the pace of technological change at its fastest for decades. The workforce must be omni-competent – able to work on both ICE and EV technologies, as well as adapt to the growing prevalence of vehicles fitted with ADAS technology.” Nash adds: “With the challenge of bridging the biggest skills gap the sector has faced, shifting consumer preferences and the need to adapt to future mobility needs, the industry is battling a complex scenario.”

And Andy Turbefield, Halfords Head of Quality, agrees. He too recognises that there’s a skills gap in the automotive sector and lists several causative ‘people’-based factors including demographic change, labour availability, and a lingering image problem.

As Turbefield says, “bridging the gap requires bold action and innovation. One of the key challenges is attracting more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.” However, he reckons that there are three barriers to overcome.

The first, he notes, is that “young people from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be lacking in confidence and social skills, and they are also likely to have comparatively low levels of attainment in numeracy, reading and writing.” This, he suggests, makes them less attractive to prospective employers.

Second, Turbefield has found that “disadvantaged young people who are unsuccessful in their efforts to enter further education often feel that they have nowhere to go.” He tells how there is often no network of family, friends and acquaintances to open doors or point them in the right direction.

Lastly, he explains that “there is a strong economic disincentive to apply for an apprenticeship since parents generally lose entitlement to housing benefit, child tax credit and child benefit.”

From Turbefield’s standpoint, none of the causes he listed is specific to the automotive sector.

Addressing the problem

But how to get more – young – people interested in working in the sector? Turbefield knows that the problem is on corporate agendas.

He explains that in November 2022 four organisations gathered to discuss the challenges – “each one, potentially, part of a jigsaw puzzle, but none of them able to present a solution on its own.”

Turbefield details that the four included the Palmer Foundation that helps young people from disadvantaged backgrounds get automotive careers and provides them with ongoing support; First Step Trust (FST), a charity that has spent some 30 years’ providing real work experience, on the job training and salaried employment for people excluded from working life; London South East College (LSEC) – which offers Level 2 and 3 Vehicle Technician courses to students that include those who do not have a straightforward pathway through education; and his firm, Halfords, which employs about 3000 vehicle technicians.

Halfords, as Turbefield says, wanted to open up “more opportunities to people from under-represented groups including people from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Notably, the IMI subsequently joined the programme. The move was welcomed, for as Turbefield says, it “ensures that qualifications, and the way they are delivered, can be adapted for those students that sit outside standard learning models.”

This inclusion of those that may not ordinarily be considered candidates for employment looks like a key solution.

Indeed, Nash comments that “recruiting from a wider pool of talent is critical in addressing the skills gap.” He refers here to the IMI’s ‘There’s More to Motor’ campaign which he says “is improving perceptions of the automotive sector and encouraging individuals from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds to choose a career in it.”

He comments that the campaign “has been hugely successful in driving interested candidates to the websites of our partners to browse and apply for job vacancies.”

But he reckons that there needs to be greater industry engagement and support: “The industry needs to come together to spread the word, improve perceptions and encourage talented individuals to consider a career in automotive.”

Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are also part of the solution. On this Nash points to the IMI’s analysis of recent data from the first quarter of the current academic year which, he says, saw a significant milestone in automotive apprenticeships – a 9% rise compared to the 2022-23 academic year.

For him, this suggests that “automotive is gaining a broader appeal.” What is particularly interesting from Nash’s viewpoint is that “there has been a pronounced uplift in intermediate-level apprenticeships which may reflect a growing demand for foundational skills and entry-level qualifications, possibly serving as a gateway to more advanced training or responding to current job market needs.”

He continues: “Our data also shows a significant engagement of younger individuals with a substantial rise in the number of under-19s beginning automotive apprenticeships. This is the youngest cohort in this field for the first quarter in the past six years reflecting concerted outreach efforts to younger demographics as well as indicating the automotive sector’s increasing allure for school leavers.”

And it appears that some pathways have proven popular. Motor Vehicle Service and Maintenance Technician (Light Vehicle) emerged as the most popular choice in the first quarter of the 2023/24 academic year, with 1,500 starts. Similarly, Autocare Technician also experienced a significant 38% increase from the previous year.

But back to the group and Turbefield tells that a recruitment day was recently held at LSEC, hosted by Halfords, FST and Andy Palmer, with each providing information for potential recruits. Some 200 young learners attended. A selection day subsequently followed at FST, with around 20 attending. During the day each undertook practical tasks in the workshop, used VR headsets and had interviews.

The process found success. As Turbefield notes, “a total of nine young learners were offered apprenticeships at Halfords” – six from LSEC plus three via FST. “It is important to stress,” he says, that “the individuals recruited in year one may well not have made it through a conventional apprenticeship recruitment process.”

Even so, he emphasises that “the partners were specifically looking for young people who, for whatever reason, were low on confidence but where they could see there was potential and willing.”

Government action

Government is central to the future. Here Nash sees an opportunity for the next administration to “learn from the past and provide the support and infrastructure that will ensure UK automotive remains a global leader as well as give UK motorists and businesses confidence.”

He says that steps need to be taken to improve the level of educators/trainers in automotive and that the sector is fairly represented in the education curriculum. He would also like support to ensure employers are properly motivated to recruit and retain apprentices and offered greater flexibility on how the apprenticeship levy can be used.

The IMI is supporting calls for the next government to secure an industrial strategy and ensure consistency in policy. “The sector,” says Nash, “cannot effectively plan based on policies that are subject to short-term change due to political expediency.”

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