Why focusing on quality not quantity will help plug the engineering skills gap
The coach and bus industry is experiencing a significant shortage when it comes to skilled engineers, with an increasing number of companies becoming reliant upon agencies to source subcontracted labour.
The commercial nature of these agencies means less emphasis on the quality of contractors, their skills set or suitability for a role and more on filling up the depots with bodies.
Stuart Raikes, Director at Alliance Transport Technologies (ATT) – aftermarket solutions provider for the coach and bus industry – discusses the challenges the industry currently faces when it comes to resourcing and the importance of establishing a conventional, highly-skilled workforce that doesn’t rely on contract labour hire.
Across the industry, the lack of highly-skilled, reliable engineers is becoming more and more apparent. The absence of specialist technicians is so profound, in fact, that it is almost at epidemic levels.
This shortage is becoming such a problem that operators across the UK are having to rely on contractors rather than employed engineers to pick up the slack, which can often prove costly.
While offering a flexible solution to operators looking to fulfil temporary positions, the retention of employed staff is being challenged by this ‘self-employed contractor’ model. Operators can sometimes find themselves losing employed staff to an agency before, quite ironically, being forced to use such agencies at an increased cost to fill the gap in their workforce.
Solution, not necessity
While this culture has been historically accepted by many bus operators, it is fast becoming a necessity in enabling a business to effectively service a client’s needs, rather than being an occasional solution to supplement employed engineers.
It’s expensive too. Ask most operators and they would tell you that, if they could flick a switch and replace their agency staff with permanent team members, many would take the opportunity with 90% of the temporary teams.
The latest guidelines in the Finance Act 2016 on Supervision, Direction and
Control (SDC) were introduced to limit the number of contractors claiming tax relief on travel and subsistence expenses, something that is not available to permanent members of staff.
Since the new legislation was introduced, the industry has seen a decline in the number of umbrella companies operating in the sector, with contractors now being limited on the travel, subsistence and other expenses they can claim.
This has resulted in contractors passing these expense costs onto the operator via the recruitment agency they’ve come from, who in some cases are generic recruitment companies with little or no history in, or understanding, of, the coach and bus industry, its governance and its culture.
This lack of industry knowledge means contractors are often appointed in a role without an assurance of quality, but always with the SDC compliance remaining the full responsibility of the operator, resulting in an already stretched operational environment becoming further loaded with an unnecessary supervisory responsibility.
Using subcontracted labour on a long-term basis is, ATT believes, unsustainable from both cost and management perspectives, and utilising contracted engineers to make up the majority of a workforce isn’t a viable solution to the resourcing problem.
Many operators are tackling this with apprenticeship schemes and staff development incentives, but these aren’t overnight solutions.
ATT is passionate about supporting operators establish a conventional, skilled workforce that doesn’t rely on costly contract labour hire, and it wants to see this dedication to investing in reliable, expert engineers rolled out across the industry.
ATT is currently committed to sourcing its own engineers boasting a solid skills base, before harnessing their existing capabilities to develop and grow their knowledge across a host of disciplines.
ATT’s aim, where the market allows, is to provide operators with permanent engineers that they employ, to help them to reduce the dependence on these agencies.
It may appear contradictory to ATT’s resourcing division to work with operators in this way, but it has the confidence that the demand in its high-end specialisms are where the real value is for ATT’s operator partners, and that the need for these continues to grow as the industry becomes more technological.
ATT is not a contractor agency, it is a multi-divisional aftersales entity that aims to partner with its customers across its other core divisions in emissions control and hybrid remanufacturing, diagnostics, new parts and more recently fire suppression.
“In the long run, it’s our mission to replace the traditional contract labour hire model with one that offers operators a workforce that is protected, invested in and of high quality,” says the business.