Comment: why UK manufacturers should go West to recruit the best

Posted on 20 Jun 2017 by The Manufacturer

St John White explains why UK manufacturers need to build their brands overseas in order to recruit tomorrow’s engineers.

World Trade Export Europe Supply Chain - image courtesy of Pixabay.
Businesses are having to turn to France, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Spain, Greece and Slovakia to find qualified, experienced engineers – image courtesy of Pixabay.

It’s encouraging to read this week that Tata-owned Jaguar Land Rover has confirmed its plans to hire 5,000 new staff in the UK to enhance its expertise in autonomous and electric technology.

However, without coming over all ‘Eeyore’ in my assessment of the situation, I can’t see how JLR bosses are going to pull this off. Given the huge and prolonged skills shortage we’re facing, I have to ask from which hidden croc of talent does the business plan to lure these 1,000 highly skilled software engineers and 4,000 other technicians? I really hope they prove me wrong.

However, in thinking about this challenge it got me pondering the fate of other UK manufacturers with similar recruitment issues.

I work with automotive supply companies of all shapes and sizes. And if there’s one thing that keeps them all awake at night, it’s the chronic lack of experienced, engineering talent in this country.

Attracting engineers from home turf is tough. While I won’t mention names, I know of a blue-chip engineering consultancy that is about to launch a major recruitment drive to fill more than 40 current vacancies. This comes on the back of months of pushing all the tried and tested recruitment buttons, with little success. Another business – this time in engine development – is so concerned about the lack of skilled technicians in its region, that it has joined together with its local LEP and other like-minded businesses to establish an engineering college, which opens later this year.

What I’m saying is that the pool of available engineering talent has simply evaporated in the UK. Our feedstock of relevant skills from schools and colleges will take years to catch up with demand. So, what are the options for UK manufacturers that need talent to grow their businesses right now?

“Go west, young man!” was the cry from our American cousins during their country’s pioneering era. And that is the strategy which many more UK manufacturers are signing up to. There simply are not enough qualified engineers in this country, so businesses are turning to highly educated economies such as France, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Spain, Greece and Slovakia to find qualified, experienced engineers. Further afield, the likes of Australia and South Africa offer potentially rich pickings for skills-starved companies.

St John White, managing director of Loki - the PR consultancy specialising in the manufacturing sector.
St John White, managing director of Loki – a PR consultancy specialising in the manufacturing sector.

What does this all mean for UK manufacturers without the significant, branded pulling power of JLR, Aston Martin or Nissan? I think they need to think global, but also be specific. To use a fishing analogy, they need to become fly fishermen, not trawlermen. This means undertaking PR on an international level, while being savvy when it comes to focusing its efforts.

In practice, UK engineering businesses are faced with a highly competitive global market for talent. They need to first of all create the most attractive shopfront they can for new recruits (both newly qualified and experienced talent). Then, they need to identify economies across the world where specific skills set exist. It may be that powertrain engineers are plentiful in Italy right now, whereas industrial design students are crying out for opportunities in Greece.

In conclusion, UK engineering businesses need to transform the way they market themselves, becoming much more open and global in their overall approach. This will probably involve harnessing digital platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter far more effectively. It will also require manufacturers to work smarter when it comes to relationship management – making links with trade organisations, consultants and educational establishments that can support them on their journey.

While issues such as the UK’s Industrial Strategy, investment in new technology, productivity, Industry 4.0 and the small matter of Brexit are all vital board level issues, attracting and retaining the best people is fast becoming challenge number one in manufacturing. And to achieve competitive advantage in this area, world-class PR is a prerequisite to success.