Mind The Gap – Skills shortage discussion

An April 2021 report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) revealed that a record three million EVs were registered in 2020 – a 41% increase from the previous year. The report titled IEA’s Global Electric Vehicle Outlook 2021, predicted that the number of EVs on the road worldwide will reach more than 145 million by 2030. With an estimated 10 million EVs on the road today, and is set to accelerate fast over the coming decade, are there enough people to fill growing numbers of positions, and is the experience available to fill new roles, such as the electromechanical engineer? “

Competition for the right people with the right skills and experience is fierce at the moment,” says Emma Reed, head of HR at Williams Advanced Engineering (WAE). “And it’s only going to get tougher as more electric vehicles enter the market.” 

According to Steve Doyle, CEO of EVera Recruitment, a dedicated battery and EV recruiter, to fill the skills gaps companies need to consider three options: “Retrain your existing workforce, recruit externally from the UK or overseas, or grow your own talent,” he says. “Given the impending skills gap, a combination of all three is ideal.” 

(Steve Doyle – EVera Recruitment)

The skills gaps 

WAE has a solid history in electrification and battery development. “The hardest roles to fill for us are probably the software and modelling engineers,” explains Reed.

“There is not an abundance of them out there with the right combination of skills and experience in electrification. Lots of people write software, but they don’t often have the ability to apply it to a battery application.” 

EVera’s Steve Doyle adds, “There has long been a shortage of power electronics, battery and high-voltage EDS engineers. However, I believe the biggest skills gap will be in the gigafactories and engineers to design battery cells. This is a completely new part of the automotive industry that didn’t exist with internal combustion engine vehicles.” 

Steve Doyle set up EVera in 2020 after recognizing the need for a niche battery and EV recruitment business and now supports several clients including Britishvolt, Lotus Cars, Tevva Electric Trucks, and the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre. 

EVera Recruitment worked with Britishvolt to source some of the talent for its new battery Gigaplant in Northumberland – the first of its kind in the UK.

“A balance of engineering skills, competences and experience across propulsion solutions are still needed and will continue to be needed” – Wendy Hepburn, HR director, Ricardo Automotive

“We interviewed in excess of 200 battery cell design engineers for this project,” says Steve Doyle. “They worked everywhere from California in the US, Japan and China. We had to go outside of the UK to try and attract talent inwards as it just didn’t exist within the country.” 

It is estimated that by 2030 there will be 200 super-sized gigafactories around the world. “Everyone will be trying to hire the same people,” Steve Doyle continues. “Salaries will inevitably become inflated. I believe battery cell designers are one of the most sought-after skill sets in the world at the moment.” 

According to Wendy Hepburn, HR director at Ricardo’s Automotive and Industrial EMEA, Performance Products, and Software Divisions, the biggest barrier to the mass adoption of EVs is cost, with range and durability in close second and third. “With that in mind, perhaps some of the other biggest roles to fi ll are around full lifecycle analysis, digital engineering and systems engineering to integrate new technologies into products to improve efficiency and performance without compromising quality or safety,” she explains.

Education, education, education… 

One of the main ways to address these skills gaps is through education and awareness. Ricardo runs a thought leadership program to try and attract new talent to the engineering sector. “We are recognized as a thought leader in clean propulsion, electrification, and renewable fuels, and globally we actively promote our thought leadership through publishing and presenting technical papers at conferences, external awards programs, delivering technical webinars to global audiences, and through active media and social media engagement,” explains Hepburn. At WAE, its engineers and heads of departments regularly visit schools and universities to share their experiences. “Quite often PhD students in electro engineering stay in research, so our employees highlight the opportunities available to them in the industry to help drive the zero emissions future,” comments Reed.

In the future, WAE hopes to offer an electrification apprenticeship of its own, to complement its existing general apprenticeship scheme. The company is also working closely with government, the Advanced Propulsion Centre, the Faraday Institution and other organizations to really support the development of electrification education. “We need to make sure electrification and STEM subjects are being talked about in schools from an early age,” adds Reed. “It’s too late for students to be thinking about computer science and chemistry when they reach GCSE age. It needs to happen earlier.”

EVera’s Steve Doyle, who is on the advisory board for the University of Warwick’s new Apprentice Battery Engineer degree, is also a big advocate of raising awareness of the EV sector with students at primary school level. “I run STEM classes with around 12 primary schools and for about 500 children every year. These types of classes can hopefully help develop much-needed homegrown talent to fill any skills gaps,” he continues. “The whole point of EVs is that we are trying to save the planet, so what is the sense in making battery cells in Asia, for example, and then transporting them via dirty cargo ships to the UK or elsewhere in Europe. Locally-sourced talent to make EVs and their components locally is the only way to achieve ultimate sustainability.”

For WAE’s Reed, although raising awareness of the EV sector to young students is essential, it’s also important to consider other streams of talent. “There will obviously be a delay before the next generation of students who are EV-qualified emerge in the industry,” she says. “Therefore it is important to look at other talent pools such as academia and motorsport, which have been good resources for us.”

“Locally-sourced talent to make EVs and their components locally is the only way to achieve ultimate sustainability” – Steve Doyle, CEO, EVera Recruitment

Steve Doyle agrees and believes skills can often be found in the most unusual of places. “We mapped out every single part of a battery manufacturing process, right from mixing the powders through to electrolyte filling, degassing and sealing, and looked at what other industries had similar processes. For example, [confectionery company] Cadbury’s uses a very similar machinery to mix its chocolate as is used to mix the powders for lithium slurries, so engineers can be sourced from there. Another example is for the electrolyte filling process – we found a process that makes soya sauce sachets which was using similar equipment. It is all about trying to figure out where the skills exist.”

The great upskill 

For the existing automotive sector workforce, which predominantly consists of engineers trained to work on internal combustion engines, upskilling will be required if they want to continue working in the sector. “We are already cross-training and developing our teams to be the workforce that we require in the future,” says Reed. “The OEMs meanwhile are investing heavily in the upskilling of their workforce. For us at WAE, it is more about adding new skills rather than completely retraining existing employees. Mechanical engineers will still be needed to assemble the final vehicle, but now they need to have an understanding of the issues concerned with an electric powertrain rather than an internal combustion engine.”

Hepburn from Ricardo also believes upskilling, rather than reskilling, is essential for an EV future: “A portfolio approach is necessary because the technology landscape is constantly evolving. A balance of engineering skills, competences and experience across propulsion solutions are still needed and will continue to be needed for some time.”

As the world reaches the ‘tipping point’ of the rapid mass adoption of EVs, having the right skills and talent pipeline in place has never been more pressing with flexibility, adaptability and efficiency now essential.

To see the full online Magazine, follow the link below: