Local authority transport depots are at a critical tipping point. Vacancy rates of 25% are not uncommon amongst technical staff and many staff are close to retirement. In the past, many would return as casual vehicle inspectors post retirement but even that avenue has now all but dried up.
The situation is worse in the private sector which shed significant labour during COVID. Many vehicle maintenance businesses that used to undertake subcontract work for councils either do not exist or no longer have the staff and expertise. Vehicles can take over six weeks before they are returned to their council operator, with significant knock-on effects on service delivery in areas such as highways and refuse collection.
A report by the Social Market Foundation published in December 2022 predicted that the automotive industry would face a deficit of 25,100 electric vehicle (EV) trained technicians by 2030. This, along with increased computerisation and efforts by manufacturers to monopolise the aftermarket space, are seen as key concerns within the industry today.
When identifying barriers to upskilling the workforce, the report listed low confidence in Government plans for EV transition, further education (FE) colleges capital constraints, and the need for more support for smaller workshops.
APSE’s own research through our annual ‘State of the Market Report’ found significant pressures on recruitment with 76% reporting difficulty in recruitment of operatives and 81% reporting difficulty in recruitment of technical staff. Likewise, 36% reported problems with retention of operatives and 37% reported problems with retention of technicians. The average age of staff was 45 with a median wage of £15.01 an hour.
Councils have enhanced the role of their workforce through the use of market supplements and regrading but these increases have not kept pace with the wider market. Around 70% of the larger vehicle maintenance workforce also hold an HGV licence in a market where national hauliers and chain stores are offering substantial salaries to drivers with double digit inflation on pay reported by Logistix UK in 2021/22.
Councils have a long and proud tradition of developing skills via apprenticeship schemes, and APSE’s most recent State of the Market Survey found over 96% of respondents run one. However, attracting applicants of the necessary calibre presents an increasing challenge. HGV apprentice roles in the general sector are poorly paid – from a reported £4.81 to £9.59 an hour or £12,480 per annum – whereas many qualified roles are now offering £40,000 plus per annum. Interestingly, the Apprentice Levy has stimulated demand at the other end of the spectrum with increases in those council officers studying at level 6 (degree level). But it is a moot point whether these same people will seek to work in frontline technical roles once qualified.
Compounding the skills problem is the fact FE and technical colleges have scaled back or closed many of their vehicles-related courses due to lack of local demand. Similarly, private garages no longer have the turnover or income to sustain an apprenticeship.
On a general note, the downward trend in the number of vehicle maintenance apprentices reflects a downward trend in the overall number of apprentices. Research from the London School of Economics and the University of Surrey exploring trends in apprenticeship take-up from 2015 to 2020, revealed that the number of overall apprenticeship starters declined dramatically over the five years. Numbers fell by almost a quarter from 2017 to 2018 which saw the move from Frameworks to Standards, new rules on the quality of training and the apprenticeship levy. According to the DfE, overall starts saw a further 18% decline during the pandemic from 2018/19 to 2020/21. Numbers have still not recovered, with DfE data showing that starts for 2021/22 remain 11% lower than in 2018/19.
It has been posited that the move to electric vehicles at the car/van end of the market may free up some roles as these vehicles typically require less servicing. However, local authorities typically run a wide spectrum of vehicles including cars and vans through to refuse freighters and highways vehicles. Though the range is steadily improving, at the heavy end of the market, electric options are still quite limited.
Vehicle maintenance has been affected by the recruitment challenge affecting the wider economy. Combine this with squeezed council budgets, and it seems the immediate future poses a significant challenge.