EVs are billed as the future. But a potential skills gap is sparking concerns about cost and safety
- Several big economies are gearing up for the mass rollout of electric vehicles.
- As the number of EVs on the road increases, a workforce with the knowledge to fix and properly maintain them will be needed.
- There are concerns, however, that a skills gap may emerge in the near future, creating a big headache for both the automotive sector and drivers.
From seatbelts to airbags and radios to parking sensors, today's cars are packed with innovations that have transformed the vehicles we drive.
Thanks to growing concerns about emissions from road-based transportation, several big economies are gearing up for another huge change: the mass rollout of electric vehicles.
The U.K., for instance, wants to stop the sale of new diesel and gasoline cars and vans by 2030 and will require, from 2035, all new cars and vans to have zero tailpipe emissions.
The European Union, which the U.K. left on Jan. 31, 2020, is pursuing similar targets. And over in the U.S., California — America's most populous state — is banning the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.
The above goals above are years away but, bit by bit, changes are already being seen on the ground.
Take the U.K., for example. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, 2022 saw factories there produce 234,066 battery electric, plug-in hybrid and hybrid electric vehicles, a record number that accounted for 30.2% of total car production.
"Total BEV production rose 4.8%, with hybrid volumes up 4.3%, and boosting output of these vehicles will be critical in the attainment of net zero, for both the UK and major overseas markets," the industry body said.
As the number of EVs on our roads increases, a workforce with the knowledge to fix and properly maintain them will be needed.
There are concerns, however, that a skills gap may emerge in the near future, creating a big headache for both the automotive sector and drivers.
In January, the Institute of the Motor Industry — a professional association for those employed in the sector — said roughly 16% of technicians in the U.K. had the relevant qualifications to work on electrified vehicles.
"The IMI predicts that the number of IMI TechSafe qualified technicians required to work with electric vehicles by 2030 is 77,000, increasing to 89,000 by 2032," it said.
"Aligned to Auto Trader Insight predictions, this suggests the skills gap — when there won't be enough technicians to service the electrified vehicle parc — will appear in 2029," it added. "Parc" is a term the SMMT says represents the "total stock of cars on the roads."
The size of this skills gap, according to the IMI's January 2023 forecast, will leap from 700 in 2029 to 13,100 in 2032.
But what would such a scenario actually look like? Steve Nash, the IMI's CEO, told CNBC there were "a couple of potential issues."
"One is just the convenience issue of people having to go a lot further than they would want to go to find somebody who's appropriately qualified to do the work," he said.
"The other one is potentially cost because, of course, the more demand and the less people there are around [to work on the vehicles] ... that could affect the cost of servicing as well."
Safety is another worry. "That's always the concern … that if the work is there, and there aren't the people to do it, then certain people will take a risk — and it genuinely is a risk," Nash said.
"Some of these vehicles are operating on anything up to sort of 800 volts of direct current … I mean, you don't need anything like that to be lethal, of course," he added.
Breaking things down
Nash acknowledged the importance of viewing the new generation of vehicles as being "electrified" and made up of pure electrics, hybrids and plug-in hybrids.
"But fundamentally, electric vehicles are totally different to internal combustion engine vehicles," he said.
"So somebody who has spent their life working on internal combustion engines can't simply make the switch from one to the other."
"And there are inherent risks involved in that because ... electrified vehicles operate at very high voltages."
During his interview, Nash stressed the importance of having a skilled workforce. He argued that while those working on cars face the biggest risk, "it isn't a risk if you know what you're doing, it isn't a risk at all."
"There are risks associated with working on internal combustion engines, but ... we've had 100 years to get used to that."
The IMI is not alone in keeping a close eye on how the increasing numbers of electric vehicles on our roads will play out.
In a statement sent to CNBC, AVERE, The European Association for Electromobility, touched upon the changes taking place in the automotive workforce.
"There is a shift in the market, with jobs moving from vehicle production, as EVs require less intensive work than fossil fuel vehicles, to the production of batteries," it said. "We see more EVs on the roads and more charging infrastructure installed."
This transition, it added, is creating "a significant demand for skilled labourers to fill the many upcoming open positions."
"As e-mobility growth becomes more important by the year, there is a pressing need to fill this gap," it said.
'Chipping away at the skills gap'
In January, the IMI expressed concern that "the pace of training" was "waning" despite over 11,500 technicians carrying out the training and qualifications needed to get its IMI TechSafe professional recognition in the first nine months of 2022.
At the time, Nash said it was "crucial the sector continues to train and skill its workforce at significant rates."
"But with current economic pressures there is concern that training budgets will be the first to be cut," he added.
Nash went on to describe government support for training as being "vital," a message he reinforced during his interview with CNBC.
"As far as the technician population is concerned ... the people who are working on the cars, I think we just need to see the continuation of the efforts that are going [on] ... at the moment."
"We are chipping away at the skills gap, but that … just needs to be sustained."
In a statement sent to CNBC, a government spokesperson said that the "number of qualified mechanics for electric vehicles in the UK is currently well ahead of demand."
"Government is working closely with industry to maintain the UK's momentum, and we're confident manufacturers will help ensure they have the trained staff they need to keep up with growing demand," they added.
"We are making sure that the UK has the skills to remain at the forefront of the EV industry with Skills Bootcamps, as well as through the Electrification Skills Boost and investment in apprenticeships, which will increase to £2.7 billion by 2024-25."