Manufacturing and engineering companies have historically invested little in IT. However, companies that have survived the repeated recessions and downturns are now investing heavily, says Ian McKeand, a director at recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash. "They have realised they need to modernise if they want to keep their heads above water and retain or win customers who want to deal electronically with suppliers," he says. "Commitments are being made at board level to invest in ERP and supply chain solutions, in internet-based technologies to allow customers to place and track orders and make payments electronically, and in better management reporting tools."
John Gilmartin, director of contracting services for the North and Midlands for recruiter Spring Group, says this is no flash-in-the-pan development. He says all the indications point to the sector remaining buoyant and offering a significant amount of work in a stable environment for at least the next three to four years. However, Satnam Brar, managing director of specialist ERP and supply chain recruitment consultancy Maximum IT, says that the UK market has begun to reach a plateau, and that the rapid growth in opportunities is now in mainland Europe. Nonetheless, he agrees there are still plenty of opportunities in the UK, since there is always a shortage of people with good skills in the manufacturing and supply chain modules of the major ERP systems.
With many projects in the UK still at the front end of the lifecycle, Gilmartin says demand is currently high for process-change specialists experienced in delivering business transformation, and for project and programme managers and business analysts.
At this level, staff may have a traditional IT background, but McKeand says many of these roles are also filled by operational managers from the sector who have worked in warehousing, supply chain logistics or production. Matt Gascoigne, head of the IT recruitment division at recruitment consultancy Badenoch & Clark, says that companies recruiting for these roles are also often not too fussy about which specific software you have worked with previously, and Brar confirms that what employers are most interested in is in previous experience in the sector.
Where expertise in products such as SAP, Oracle, Peoplesoft, JD Edwards and Manugistics matters is at the next level down, with companies looking for technical specialists who can install, configure, test and train on a particular system. Manufacturers are also looking for J2E and .net skills and some legacy application skills to handle the transition from old systems to new implementations. Gilmartin suggests demand for these more technical skills will most likely begin to ramp up in the last quarter of this year.
With much of the activity in the sector based around projects with a fixed end-point, Gascoigne says that roles are weighted more towards contract work than permanent positions. However, the number of permanent roles available is on the increase, especially in larger organisations, which are now continuously reviewing their operational processes. Brar says it can be difficult to fill these permanent roles because people with the right skills mostly prefer to work in the contractor market. As a result, he says, employers are often forced to take on more junior staff and offer training to get them to the level they need, making this sector a surprisingly heavy investor in staff development.
One of the reasons manufacturing and engineering companies struggle to recruitment permanent staff, Brar says, is that they often do not pay well enough to attract those skills. Gilmartin confirms that even for contractors, rates may be a little on the low side, but he says that is balanced by the fact that contracts are typically longer, giving contractors in this market greater stability in their careers. "We also see a lot of redeployment," he says. "When a contractor comes to the end of their involvement in a project for a particular employer, there is often a chance to redeploy into another project in the same company."
Junior IT professionals contemplating a move into the sector should also note the difference in demographics in manufacturing compared with the IT industry as a whole. "Many of the consultants in the sector have been in it for 20 or 30 years, but the history of manufacturing in the UK means there is a shortage of younger people coming through," Brar says. With such a top-heavy age distribution, there is likely to be a skills crunch in a few years' time that could drive up rates.
Moreover, although manufacturing and engineering may have a reputation as something of a slow-moving a backwater, Gilmartin says that is no longer the case. "Because of the huge amounts of investment going in, there is a chance to work with the latest tools and technologies, and be involved in juicy projects," he says. Gascoigne confirms that many of these projects provide real opportunities to shape and influence the business.
In addition, because many large manufacturers are multinationals, Gascoigne says the sector offers plenty of opportunities to work overseas. However, he warns, you may also find yourself "living out of a suitcase. With these roles, you can spend an awful lot of the time away from your base."
Another downside, McKeand says, is the risk of getting stuck in the sector once you have worked in it for a number of years. "It is very easy to place candidates, especially at more senior levels, in another manufacturing and engineering sector employer, but hard to get companies in other sectors to take them seriously," Gascoigne agrees that your skills and experience can easily become too specialised, limiting your opportunities in the wider marketplace. "The flip side is that the more specialised you become, the more you will be in demand in this sector," he says.