The race to train a new cohort of electric vehicle mechanics

OPINION:

Motorists of a certain vintage will have noticed that fixing a car has become ever more high-tech. When I started in the automotive industry more than four decades ago, a wrench, pliers and spanners were the tools du jour. Today, mechanics and technicians are equipped with laptops, iPads and advanced diagnostics computers to help them repair a faulty vehicle.

The reason for this is simple. A modern car contains around 100m lines of code. To put that into context, a top-spec airliner has 14m lines. In the next decade, it is estimated that most passenger vehicles will need around 300m lines of software to keep them on the road. In other words, cars are becoming increasingly reliant upon electronics.

Needless to say, as the UK makes the transition to electric and the internal combustion engine becomes less prominent, fixing a faulty car will require a skillset more akin to that of a software engineer than a traditional mechanic.

Since the government set the ambitious aim of banning the sales of new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030, much of the focus has been on preparing the infrastructure to accompany that transition.

For example, it’s no secret that we need to see more on-street chargers available. We also need to see more battery factories established on British soil. We need to prepare the national grid for an increase in energy consumption. And we also need to prepare a workforce that has the relevant skills not only to build and manufacture a new style of vehicle, but also to maintain and repair them.

When I left my post as chief executive of Aston Martin in 2020, I set up a charitable foundation to support bright and talented young apprentices as they embark on a career in the automotive sector. In the course of that work I’ve seen first-hand the talent we have among our young people today. There is no shortage of appetite and skill to fulfil these emerging roles, but they also need support from the government, employers and the education sector.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recently spoken about his desire to create a high-skill, high-wage economy. The automotive revolution we are on the cusp of can no doubt be a key driver of this admirable ambition. But now is the time to begin expanding the training options available for the new breed of auto engineers, technicians and specialists. The deadline of 2030 will creep up on us quickly, and we risk running before we can walk if our roads are full of electric vehicles that cannot be adequately maintained or repaired when required.

As ever, this kind of lofty reconfiguration of our relationship with transport will not come without challenges. Software engineers earn good money and the very best are often lured to the top jobs in exciting technology companies that can offer generous salaries as well as multiple perks, such as on-site hairdressers, gyms and restaurants. That’s a long way from what might be available at your local garage. Ultimately, dealerships will have to compete for this talent and that may result in higher costs for the repair of electric vehicles, at least over the short-to-medium term.

But the UK has a proud automotive history and it would be a travesty if that legacy doesn’t continue into the new “electric age” of transport. It is therefore imperative that schools, colleges and universities recognise the role the auto industry can play in providing highly-skilled, well-paid and green jobs for future generations.

According to the RAC, just 5 per cent of the UK’s current cohort of more than 200,000 vehicle technicians are currently qualified to work on electric cars. Given that there are over 345,000 pure-electric cars on the road (with many more hybrids), there is already a worrying lack of capable technicians. The goal of 2030 is around the corner. Let’s make sure we are ready before it arrives.

– Andy Palmer is chief executive of Switch Mobility

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