With the world in turmoil and the UK in recession, it’s nice to begin my column with some positive news. Craig Kennedy, a vehicle painting technician employed by Howell ARC in Northern Ireland, won the Bronze Medal for Car Painting at the WorldSkills 2022 competition. The event was held in Denmark instead of Shanghai because of the COVID-19 situation in China.
“Craig Kennedy has done the UK proud and fought his socks off to claim a well-deserved bronze medal. I’m so proud of this young man,” said Richard Wheeler, Training Manager / Expert Car Painting at WorldSkills UK.
FASTEST GROWING BODY SHOP GROUP
Despite the continuing energy crisis and rising inflation, many body shops are remaining bullish and weathering the storms. One such business that springs to mind is Steer Automotive Group.
Established in 2018 with the acquisition of a four-site body shop group, Steer Automotive now has 57 sites, making it the second largest body shop group in the UK. Unsurprisingly, the company won the Fastest Growing Bodyshop Group award for the third year running at the ABP Bodyshop Excellence awards last November.
Steer Prestige in High Wycombe, close to London, won (against stiff competition) the Best New Bodyshop Site award. The business focuses on high-end vehicle manufacturer approvals and is a Porsche-recommended centre. There are only 17 of these prestigious recommended sites in the UK, two of which are held by Steer.
Built from scratch, the shop is Steer’s flagship site and a blueprint for future body shops in its “measurably different” approach. It includes the latest technology repair equipment with the latest energy-saving efficiencies. Every design detail has been considered to create the best working environment and a customer-centric focus. There are customer lounges, some set up with workstations for business clients to use while they wait for a fast-track repair to be completed.
Upstairs in this 28,000-square-foot (2600-square-metre) facility is Steer’s state-of-the-art training academy, where technicians can continue learning and development.
“2023 will be another exciting year for us,” said Gavin Ruddick, Chief Operating Officer, Steer Automotive Group. With a 30-year career in the automotive industry, Ruddick spent 10 years delivering business transformation through acquisition for some of the largest dealerships before joining Steer.
The Group’s strategy is to acquire the best regional groups run by the best operators. These groups need to be in the right locations and already working with Steer-established partnerships. “Our regional operating model is a key aspect of our strategy,” said Ruddick. “Our regional leadership teams know their businesses really well, have important local knowledge and awareness, and [have] a solid, historic understanding of how each site runs. We have an established operating model where we look closely at the optimum capacity of each site and ensure it is structured with the right resource, agreeing what we believe are the important measures that will allow us to professionally repair as many vehicles as possible.”
Ask almost any body shop or supplier in our industry and the majority will have employment vacancies that they would like to fill. The IMI (Institute of the Motor Industry) predicts the motor industry will have a shortfall of 160,000 workers by 2031. The cost-of-living crisis and skills shortage are pushing wages up and many employees, having tasted a better work-life balance due to the furlough scheme, haven’t returned to our sector. As well as improved financial remuneration, companies must think about offering additional incentives to staff such as flexi-working.
Anecdotal evidence shows that since the pandemic, some older employees have either left the industry for less demanding jobs, even if it means less money, or are taking early retirement. “With the average age of technicians approaching 50, the industry will end up with more severe capacity issues than we have today,” said Steve Thompson, Vice Chairman of AutoRaise, a charitable organisation committed to reversing the skills shortage in the vehicle repair industry.
Dean Lander, Head of Repair Sector Services at Thatcham Research, points out that we are also seeing an ageing workforce reaching retirement faster than fresh talent can be recruited. “The IMI also recently observed that the UK government’s Road to Zero strategy requires competencies that aren’t yet fully available,” added Lander.
Although the pandemic lockdowns stalled recruitment and closed opportunities for engagement with young people and potential employment, Thatcham increased its training commitment. “While parts of the education industry retrenched during the pandemic, we maintained our commitment to ensuring wholesale training remained available,” said Lander. “In fact, we extended our programmes with a significant investment in virtual classrooms and hybrid formats to supplement the work of our world-class practical training facility. This has resulted in a doubling of capacity for mechanical and electrical skills provision to the repair sector.”
School of Thought was established to fix the disconnect between education and employers. “Our main goal is to connect education to the industry in a variety of ways, but predominantly by attending careers events and family or community events such as the British Motor Show, career fairs, and other events to promote the variety of job roles the industry has to offer not only to young people, but to the wider community such as teachers, career advisors, parents, and guardians,” said co-founder Julie Eley. “The more people who know about what we do, the better.”
According to Eley, there is competition from other industries also suffering recruitment problems. “We have seen the number of organisations attending career fairs increase, with them feeling the strain of recruiting new talent too, such as the NHS, emergency services, armed forces as well as construction, rail and disruptors like Amazon,” said Eley. “We have had substantial positive feedback from attending over 200 events in schools and colleges, but there is still a lot of work to do to educate teachers and parents about the career paths available in the industry and this is a key message we deliver.
“There is also still more work to be done on improving the perception and breaking down barriers, and businesses need to be making themselves more attractive, too. If we attract young people, or indeed any age, will they stay, particularly in businesses where the current team are not happy and want to leave themselves?”
Funded by the UK Government through the Advanced Propulsion Centre, Thatcham Research says it is working closely with Toyota Motor Manufacturing (UK) and a consortium of specialist industry partners to develop a hydrogen version of Toyota’s Hilux pick-up truck. Hydrogen vehicle repair training programmes will also be devised by Thatcham Research.
Participation in this project builds on work completed in 2021, when Thatcham Research launched its ‘EV Ready’ training programme, enabling businesses to handle electric vehicles safely and efficiently.
“We’re delighted to be collaborating with Toyota and Ricardo [Automotive] on this project,” said Miller Crockart, Chief Revenue Officer at Thatcham Research. “Whilst pure battery electric vehicles are the poster child for decarbonisation in the automotive sector, continued research and the development of alternative fuel types such as hydrogen also holds the potential to play a key part in achieving UK carbon neutrality goals.”