Perception is everything

With another set of school leavers soon to be heading into the world of work, is the automotive sector showing the world its best face?

Published:  08 April, 2019

School leavers are about to become ‘A Thing’ again. In May and June, GCSEs will be sat, and A Levels will be taking place too. There will also be the inevitable angst about how many are going to university, and how many are taking the vocational route.
    
The automotive sector should be a good place to head instead of academia. It’s technical, it’s getting more technical in fact, and there is definitely a future in it. So, why is there still a dearth of good technicians? The answer possibly goes back decades.
    
Back when the year 2019 was still seen as being far in the distant future, and we all (well, some of us) expected bio-engineered artificial human replicants to be doing all the heavy lifting by the time we arrived. There was also a push to put more and more young people down the academic career route. Why would anyone want one of those hands-on jobs when you could go off, get a degree, and end up in the big chair, calling the shots? Presumably the replicants would respond well to instruction from people with ‘a good education.’
    
Well, a few decades later, here we are. Millions of young people heeded the call and trooped into all the universities, which had multiplied as the polytechnics found themselves elevated to a higher status. Can you guess what happens when more and more people acquire what is seen as being the top level of education? Yes that’s right, inflation, and the devaluing of qualifications. With untold numbers of people flooding into the job market clasping a degree, and the memory of the mortar board and gown from graduation still fresh in their minds, those neophytes found that they were not welcomed with open arms. In fact, if everyone has a degree, the competitive advantage it was supposed to give you vanishes. There you are, slogging towards finding a way to be a useful member of society along with everyone else. Of course, prior to the introduction of university tuition fees, it was all part of the learning curve. Then it got expensive. Now it is very expensive, and many young people (and their parents) are going to be looking at the risk-versus-reward equation a lot more closely. Your erstwhile Aftermarket Editor can attest to the fact that it was somewhat deflating to finish a three year degree in 1999, the hardest thing he had done up to that point, only to find his actual course name-checked on an episode of TV’s The Simpsons as a gag. He was lucky though as he was among the last intake to have tuition paid for. Nowadays, you want to make sure your course of study is not a comedy punchline. If not, the cost is high.
    
If you are going to invest a large chunk of your life to become qualified in something, and you are going to do that thing for the rest of your life, and getting that qualification is going to cost you lots of money, you want to make sure that it is going to work for you.
    
According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the centralised body through which university applications are made, in 2018 there were 11,000 fewer university applications compared with 2017, an overall decline of 2%. While there were fewer 18-year olds in the population, the number of mature students applying was also down.  

Rising costs
Some observers have pointed at the rising cost of tuition fees and attendant long-term debt as the reason university applications have dropped, but perhaps there is more to it than that. Of course, the other assumption is that everyone wants to spend another three years, or perhaps more sitting in classrooms. Admittedly things are a bit more informal, but many people just want to get on with actually doing something.
    
John Kerr, Operations Director at training provider Develop Training Ltd (DTL) recently observed: “Instead of racking up student debt, apprentices earn while they learn, and apprenticeships provide other ways of learning for those who aren’t suited to academia. Apprenticeships can also generate social mobility, even beyond what might be expected from gaining a practical qualification and a well-paid job.”
    
This is a good point. Going out and getting a job gets you paid. Upping sticks for university and getting a degree means you have a useful qualification, in theory. Imagine if there was some sort of institution that combined these two things. Hang on…
    
Apprenticeships offer a real and practical way to work towards a career for young people, one that does not involve huge amounts of debt. It also makes you actually employable. If you put this on a side of a bus, you might even get people to vote for it. Maybe it would help if apprenticeships could be accessed in a similar way to the UCAS model, where one applies for a number of positions at the same time, but that is a topic for another article. After all, in a world of rising university costs, a non-academic route should be an enticing alternative. This is also good for businesses providing the apprenticeships, as they get to hone the raw material that is the young person into something that resembles a useful employee. Also, thanks to the Apprenticeship Levy, there is ample funding available What’s not to like?
    
Despite this the automotive aftermarket still faces a skills crisis. This is a serious, and large industry with lifelong learning opportunities. So why are there still not enough technicians?
    
Then we get to the issue of the pitch being made to potential candidates. It’s all about the presentation.
    
Has the automotive aftermarket presented itself well enough as a career option for young people in the past? Probably not. As an industry, it is somewhat diffuse, with thousands of individual outlets as opposed to large monolithic entities that parents can point at and say “This.”  The structure of the industry also went against it in funding terms, and between the collapse of traditional apprenticeships during the 1970s and moves to rebuild the route in the 1990s and later, getting an apprenticeship could be a dicey business, for employer and employee alike. Things are improving however. In the last few months, as covered in Aftermarket, the aforementioned Apprenticeship Levy has seen some reform that makes it more user-friendly.

Development  
Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) Chief Executive Steve Nash observed: “With a decline of 24% in the number of people starting in-work training, an extra £90 million of government funding has been issued to give businesses the flexibility to take full advantage of the benefits of employing apprentices. The motor industry already recruits 12,500 apprentices each year, and the sector isn’t showing any sign of slowing down. Developments in new technology have meant new opportunities and careers have become available for young people – businesses must adapt to futureproofing their workplace by investing in this.”
    
Of course, just having the facility to run apprenticeships is not enough. You need to attract young people towards the programme, and bring the parents along for the ride. They pay the bills after all. Careers advice is key in this area, so promoting the ongoing learning opportunities available will certainly help the situation.
    
“The IMI’s research found careers advice and guidance about vocational learning opportunities is needed more than ever,” said Steve. “Just 5% of those surveyed on behalf of the IMI were aware that you could earn money while you study – a sharp drop compared to 20% in 2014.
    
“There is also a huge gulf in parents’ perception of the career opportunities offered by the motor industry. Just over a quarter (27%) said they would be happy for their child to become a vehicle mechanic, compared to 59% of parents favouring a career in engineering. And 8% said they would be embarrassed to tell people that their child worked in the motor trade.
    
“Careers advice in schools is worryingly inconsistent and, in many cases, far from effective, yet that is only part of the challenge.  We mustn't underestimate the importance of ensuring parents are equipped to provide knowledgeable and accurate careers guidance to their children because they are still the greatest influencers on the choices their children make. The excellent opportunities offered by the automotive industry are still very largely misunderstood by anyone who doesn't have direct experience or personal contacts within the business.”

Opportunities
It’s not just about apprenticeships though. The long-term journey that a young person will be embarking on needs to be clear, and the opportunities for further self-improvement need to be apparent from the beginning. This is where continuing professional development (CPD) comes into play, and this needs to be promoted as well.
    
“The IMI is extremely proud to be the End-Point Assessment Organisation for the new Apprenticeship Standards that are being provided to the automotive sector,” commented Steve. “Working alongside manufacturers and employers across the industry, we have been able to create a suite of products that guarantee learners are being offered the very best training. Having a variety of new standards that range from customer service to technicians helps to make sure the sector’s training needs are met and businesses are fully prepared for when the old frameworks are discontinued in 2020.”
    
In the end, what we need to know is can the sector offer people the chance of a successful career in a way that they will respond to?
    
Steve thinks the industry is up to the challenge: “The government has made many changes to the apprenticeship system over the last few years, and as the professional body and an awarding organisation for the motor industry we want to ensure that the training for apprentices remains at a high quality. The IMI is continuing to support employers by offering advice and guidance to help them understand how best to use their Levy, whether that’s investing in new staff or upskilling their current workforce.”
    
If we are talking about skills shortages, Brexit may make the situation even better for those looking for new roles, and a bit more challenging for employers. If EU members of staff decide to head south to the continent – assuming Brexit goes ‘well,’ – the sector will face even sharper skills shortages. It would it need to up its game in retaining and  pursuing talent. Steve mused: “The skills gap in the motor retail sector is already critical. Young blood is, therefore, vital as the rapid development of new technology around electric, autonomous and connected vehicles changes the face of motoring, opening up a world of exciting new career opportunities.”
    
If the sector wants to attract the best, we need to show that it is a forward-looking industry that offers many potential avenues for ambitious young people. This is clearly the truth, but we need to make sure that message gets through to those who are supposed to be receiving it. That means working with sector bodies like the IMI and others. It also means working with schools and colleges to make sure that they understand what kind of industry it is. More than once in the past we have covered the issue of educational outlets having a view of the automotive sector that is not exactly favourable. We are not alone in this – many of the more practical industries are seen as a route for the less gifted. This is unfair on these industry, and on those who might gain most from them.
    
GCSEs finish in about three months, and A Levels just before that. Of course, there is not just this year’s crop to think about. There are thousands of potential top-tier techs coming through the system every year. Let’s get the message out there.

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