ClassicLine’s resident road tripper, Ben Coombes, steps into the garage to discuss the skills shortage epidemic facing classic car restoration businesses.
As a classic car enthusiast, it’s easy to feel somewhat embattled these days. Not a week seems to go by when some threat to our hobby hits the news. From congestion charges to low emission zones, from the vilification of fossil fuels to the corroding tendencies of E10 fuel, the attacks seem to come in from every angle. But there is one, more subtle threat to the long term health of our cars, which was recently brought home to me in a chat with Adrian at Somerford Mini, a classic Mini specialist based in Wiltshire.
As both a TVR owner and Mini fanatic, Adrian not only has impeccable taste in cars, but as an insider, he also has his finger on the pulse of the classic car industry. From speaking to him, it seems that thanks in part to the pandemic, things in the industry aren’t quite as they were in the heady days of the previous decade. The problem? A skills shortage.
Adrian has put together a summary of this industry-wide issue, and it makes for interesting reading. So, here is one company’s account of life in the workshop after the virus, and how the manpower issues might be solved – over to you, Adrian:
”The order book is full. Really full. Our (fantastically patient) customers are waiting over 18 months before we can start restorations of their beloved Classic Minis. We are routinely turning away minor jobs, servicing, and MOTs from faithful customers – which really hurts not just financially, but crucially it also damages the loyalty bond of the owners who have been coming to us for years.
There seems to be a shortage of manpower in just about every profession, whether skilled or unskilled. Like many other engineering-based companies we are finding it just about impossible to recruit– we have a vacancy in our stores, but most importantly we cannot get appropriately skilled workshop staff and two positions have been vacant for a year.
Since the Covid 19 pandemic, many older workers (who may have the skills) have decided not to re-join the workforce despite the great contribution they have to offer, especially in the classic motoring arena. Talking to overseas colleagues it is apparent that it is an international problem.
Recent data from the Office of National Statistics reveals that while unemployment rates are falling, economic inactivity for those aged 50 to 64 has risen. This rise reverses a long-term downward trend which started during the pandemic. For those who understand the value of skilled older workers in the classic car trade, however, it’s cause for concern.
There is also generally a dearth of younger workers in the restoration business; there seems to be a reluctance to take on apprentices due to a perceived burden of red tape and legislation - and a lack of tradesmen to train them within the workplace. Those that have had placements with modern car manufacturers seem to be taught to ‘plug it in to the computer, read the fault code, and replace the black box it tells you’. Fortunately, the last few years has seen the development of some new skills-based training centres such as the Heritage Skills Academy, training ‘Coachbuilding and Trim Technicians’ and ‘Vehicle Mechanical Technicians’. Here at Somerford Mini our Coachbuilding apprentice is in his third year and is an absolute asset to the company.
Are skilled staff working elsewhere? For better pay and benefits? Pay is, as always, a thorny issue. Employers (for other than very high-end marques) can’t afford to pay their staff as much as they would like. Overheads are skyrocketing and components are routinely going up in price month-on-month. How much can a Mini restoration company realistically charge for labour per hour? It just doesn’t make sense if the cost of a restoration outstrips the value of the finished car by thousands of pounds.AdrianSomerford Mini
So how do we tempt skilled staff back into the workshop?
Reduced hours? Employers will generally be prepared to accommodate sensible requests to ease the working week by allowing a shorter working day or reducing to 3 or 4 days per week.
Job satisfaction? Engineers that had been promoted and spent years in a supervisory or management role may relish ‘getting back on their tools’ – the sense of well-being for a job well done shouldn’t be underestimated.
And finally – once all of those home DIY jobs have been completed – wouldn’t it be nice to get out of the house and back into a workshop to join a team with all of the associated banter and camaraderie? Hopefully these reasons might coax our missing workforce off the sofa (or out of the shed!) and back into the workshop where their skills are properly valued.
There you have it; finding the skilled labour to keep up with the public’s ongoing demands for work on their cherished classics seems to have become increasingly difficult as older people, with a lifetime of experience, drift towards retirement. Hopefully this is something which the rise of classic car apprenticeships in places like Bicester Heritage can turn around, before too many classics awaiting restoration pass the point of no return.
In the meantime, if you live in Wiltshire, have the relevant skills and would be interested in a job at Somerford restoring classic Minis, feel free to give Adrian a shout – you can reach him at email@example.com
Let’s face it, the more classic Minis on the road, the better…