Could a career in the motor industry be the vehicle for your personal development? Dr Cedric Ashley, director of the Euromotor Project at the University of Birmingham, explores the options

The motor industry is one of the largest sectors of employment in the United Kingdom. It is thought that there are around 900,000 people employed in the industry, of whom 330,000 are in vehicle design and manufacture, 525,000 in the retail motor industry engaged in buying and selling of vehicles and over 50,000 in motor sport activity.

Each of these sectors has its own particular requirements but in general there are three levels of entry into the industry:

Graduate level. A degree is a necessary requirement if you are to reach the top in the design, development and manufacture of vehicles

Technician level or equivalent, corresponding to direct entry at the age of around 18. This is a common point of entry for people wanting a commercial, sales or marketing career, as well as those interested in a technician career concerned with vehicle design, development and the proving of the car

Craft level at the age of 16. This is the usual point of entry for those wishing to become mechanics, turners, fitters or specialists in any of the many other craft-based skills

Manufacturing and supply

The manufacturing side of the motor industry is divided between the vehicle manufacturers or assemblers and the various supply companies. Typical companies based in the UK are Ford, Rover, Vauxhall, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Isuzu, Peugeot, Rolls-Royce, Lotus, TVR, Morgan and others. Together, they now manufacture nearly two million cars a year, a total which is gradually increasing. Most of these companies are supported by large engineering departments, which have a tremendous demand for graduates. It is thought that there are around 20,000 graduate engineers employed in the industry.

The supply companies are in a number of tiers, starting with those who supply the major components for the vehicle, such as tyres, electrical systems, seats, suspension components and so on. They are supported in turn by a wider range of suppliers. Increasingly, the "tier one" suppliers are being asked to participate in the design and development of the vehicle and their demand for graduate engineers and technicians is also growing rapidly.

Both the manufacturing and supply side of the industry are becoming global, with the majority of the companies having plants worldwide. This means that employment in the motor industry at graduate level gives tremendous opportunities for travel and working overseas.

Graduate entry

The work done by graduate engineers involves taking responsibility for design, development and the methods of production. A graduate development engineer may very well have to conduct tests on a prototype vehicle in conditions ranging from the Arizona desert to the Arctic Circle.

In order to become a graduate engineer, it is necessary to complete a degree course at a university. The most common degree is in mechanical engineering and the normal entry level is three A-levels (or equivalent), of which at least one must be mathematics and the other two science based. Some universities have an entrance standard as high as BBB at A level, though there are opportunities to be accepted with lower qualifications. However, a mechanical engineering degree is demanding and it is suggested that, unless the student achieves DDD or better, they will find the course very difficult and should consider an alternative.

There are two levels of graduation in a mechanical engineering degree:

  • A BSc after three years of study
  • An MEng after four years

The MEng is becoming a positive requirement for recognition of educational attainment by the professional associations associated with the industry, such as the Engineering Council and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Post-university, it is normal to have a training period of up to two years with the industry when you are familiarised with the different areas and given the opportunity to decide on your specialism, whether design, manufacture or development.

Technician entry

Whether into manufacture, retail or motorsport, technician entry is generally at the age of 18, though it can be a little bit earlier if a modern apprenticeship is adopted. Modern apprenticeships can lead to a BTEC Higher National Certificate or Diploma, normally taken at a College of Further Education. Some companies sponsor students starting at technician level to go on to university.

Craft level

Craftsmen and women are as important to the industry's success as professional engineers and technicians. They carry out detailed work and are trained to turn engineering drawings and instructions into finished products. Craftspeople use a wide variety of skills to make the most of the technology equipment used in motor manufacture and maintenance. Increasingly, they need more than one skill and take appropriate NVQ2 or SVQ qualifications. Specialist craftspeople, including electricians, toolsetters, fitters/mechanics, pattern makers and body makers, usually start their training at 16 or 17.

For further information: ­ This is the industry's own site. It is organised by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders ­ This site is organised by the Department of Trade and Industry and the SMMT working together and is invaluable for information on training and education ­ The Autotrain project organises online training in motor industry topics. The site also includes a links page to the majority of car company sites and many others ­ Euromotor organises pan-European training and gives some idea of the ultimate scope of work in the industry ­ The Formula Student site for Birmingham University ­ The website of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers ­ The official site about Formula Student