Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Skills Can Keep Automotive Firms in the Fast Lane; Automotive and Engineering Chiefs Are Taking on the Challenge of Upskilling Their Workforces to Power the Regional Economy. Jez Davison Reports

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Skills Can Keep Automotive Firms in the Fast Lane; Automotive and Engineering Chiefs Are Taking on the Challenge of Upskilling Their Workforces to Power the Regional Economy. Jez Davison Reports

Article excerpt

Byline: Jez Davison

THE power of the automotive sector is oiling the wheels of the local economy.

It generates more than PS11bn of sales each year, exports PS5.1bn of goods and services, directly employs 30,000 people and affects a further 141,000 jobs in the supply chain.

The wider engineering and manufacturing sectors are also economic powerhouses that build on the North East's proud tradition of creating and selling high-quality products to customers across the world.

It's widely recognised, however, that an influx of skills is urgently needed to keep these industries in the fast lane.

The North East Automotive Alliance (NEAA) is actively promoting the industry as a viable career option and is using eye-catching statistics to underline this point of view. More than PS15bn has been invested in the sector nationally since 2012; over 1.7m vehicles were produced last year - the second highest output ever recorded - and the growth of the sector is expected to generate a further 100,000 new jobs by 2020.

Locally, Nissan's decision to build the Qashqai and X-Trail vehicles at its Sunderland plant is predicted to generate increased production in the supply chain and additional inward investment, creating at least 5,000 jobs.

Despite these positive figures, however, NEAA acknowledges that the sector faces huge skills challenges.

schools students to Chief executive Paul Butler said: "We need to consider the fact we have an ageing workforce with increasing number of employees reaching retirement age, and that other sectors competing for our skilled workforce are also seeing growth potential. This leaves us with a route, sixth form to the school significant skills issue but not one that cannot be overcome.

"Training and development of manufacturing staff is relatively straightforward as long as the candidates display the right behavioural characteristics. It is, however, more difficult to develop the higher-level skills required to replace experienced, mature well-trained employees. Crucial to meeting these challenges is finding best practice, accelerated learning that enables companies to upskill and embed higher-level skills in their current employees and new entrants."

He said trailblazer and new degree apprenticeships could offer some long-term answers if delivered correctly, while "better, faster, cheaper and focused upskilling" would allow firms to adapt successfully to demographic changes and rapid advances in technology.

At the forefront of these challenges is car parts maker ElringKlinger (GB), which makes speciality gaskets and heat shields at its factory on the Kirkleatham Business Park in Redcar. In an attempt to boost its skills base, the company has invested in apprentices and now has 27 on its books - almost one tenth of its total workforce.

Now the firm wants the education sector to tailor learning programmes more closely to the needs of industry.

Ian Malcolm, managing director of ElringKlinger (GB), said: "There's a need for education to be measured differently and for establishments to align competencies; it's apprentice skills that are in demand rather than graduate skills.

"Higher apprenticeships were launched in 2011 as a pathway for those who weren't looking for a university course after A Level. Since then they've since been rekindled as degree apprenticeships but in my opinion, they fall flat. Instead, we need to be finding routes for employers to get back what they put in."

He expressed concern that the apprenticeships levy, which comes into force in April, could have a detrimental effect by encouraging firms to reduce opportunities for apprentices. It will be funded primarily by larger employers, who will pay 0.5% of their wage bill if it is more than PS3m.

"The tax won't cover the cost we have for our apprentices," said Mr Malcolm. "I feel it hasn't been thought through and reform is required as it will only be a hindrance in the drive to close the [skills] gap. …

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