Engineer Job Market Report

Engineer Job Market Report – February 2017

In focus this month: Maintenance Engineers

The recruitment market for Maintenance Engineers within the Food & Drink Manufacturing sector remains highly competitive, and 2017 has seen a continuation of the trend in Q3 and Q4 of 2016, with strong demand for Maintenance Engineers across all areas of the UK.

Demand has been solid across all levels of experience, however, we have witnessed a particular demand for Food Industry Maintenance Engineers with 1 to 4 years post-apprenticeship experience. Engineers falling within this level of experience are receiving a lot of interest from Employers and we believe the reason for this is Engineering Managers and Chief Engineers seeking to lower the average age of their Maintenance teams, with several Engineering Department Managers reporting recent or imminent retirements within their Maintenance teams, and difficulty identifying suitable replacements.

Anecdotally at least, another driver for the desire to recruit less experienced Engineers appears to be the perception that salaries for younger Engineers will be lower, so will fit with departmental budgets and the pay of existing Engineers. This is the perception, but we have seen over the past 12 months, Food industry employers making concerted efforts to retain their younger and less experienced Maintenance Engineers by offering inducements such as career development opportunities and significant pay rises. In many cases, this has put inexperienced Maintenance Engineers with less than 4 years experience on remuneration parity with Maintenance Engineers with 15+ years’ experience. We have witnessed good Maintenance Engineers with 2-4 years experience commanding base salaries of £37-39k for a move from one Food Manufacturer to another and there are examples of Maintenance Engineers with only 3 years experience being offered £40-£42k (inclusive of shift premium) to move to large Multi-National Food producers. The perception that less experienced Engineers command lower salaries than experienced Maintenance Engineers is therefore incorrect, and in our view, Food & Drink Manufacturers offering less than the average salary for their specific region are at a distinct disadvantage to companies paying market rates, as a shortage of Engineers means only lower caliber Engineers will be interested in roles paying less than the market rate.

Another trend continuing in 2017 is wage inflation of Maintenance Engineer roles outpacing average UK wage inflation which is widely predicted to be 2% - 3% across all sectors in 2017. A review of 50 UK Food Manufacturing Maintenance Engineer vacancies advertised in February 2017 shows the average salary is 9.4% higher than 50 UK Food Manufacturing Maintenance Engineer vacancies advertised in February 2016. (£34,682 pa Feb 2016 versus £37,942 pa Feb 2017). Many of our Food industry clients are reporting a realization that salaries for Maintenance Engineers have had to increase in order to attract quality applicants. We have seen Maintenance Engineers leave the industry, attracted to the higher salaries offered by other sectors, and this is particularly true of Electrically biased Maintenance Engineers. This has led to the realization that salaries offered to experienced Maintenance Engineers must increase and there is also a growing trend to pay more to recruit and retain younger less experienced Engineers, who are seeing their salaries being increased to levels in line with their more experienced colleagues (as cited above). As was the case in 2016, so far in 2017 it does appear to be the large Corporates who are prepared to pay the higher salaries to Maintenance Engineers, and particularly those Corporates operating in short-shelf life categories. A further reason for the continuing upward momentum of Maintenance Engineer salaries is the lack of experienced Maintenance Engineers on the market, as Maintenance Engineers moving out of the Food industry or retiring are not being replaced in sufficient numbers. Chief Engineers and Hiring Managers are reporting a lack of relevant responses to job adverts placed and salary expectations of good applicants are often breaking the ceiling of existing salary structures of Engineering departments.

Engineering Managers and Chief Engineers we have spoken to in 2017 are generally bullish as to the commercial prospects of their Employers (Food & Drink Manufacturers) for this year. The majority feel their businesses will have a financially positive year, and asked about how the size of their Maintenance Engineering team will change as the year progresses, the vast majority feel team size will increase slightly or stay the same in 2017, with only one Engineering Manager believing team size will decrease, with this due to a merger and subsequent site divestment.

Engineering Department Heads we spoke to appear to be less bullish in terms of CAPEX pipeline and expansion plans, with some reporting the mothballing of previous plans, although the view is that many of these CAPEX plans will eventually come to fruition and the lack of CAPEX activity in the short-term will not impact on the size of the Maintenance Engineering team currently employed.

Most Hiring Managers feel the need to recruit Engineers will remain consistent in 2017 and no Engineering Manager reported a current need to recruit multiple Maintenance Engineers, which may be a relief, given the reported difficulty in recruiting good Engineers to cover just the leavers and backfill of promoted Engineers.  

With regard to the future outlook for Maintenance Engineering roles, it appears that Automation is an area that is becoming increasingly relevant to Maintenance Engineer positions, with many Engineering Departments moving away from a culture of ‘fixing and preventing’ to a more holistic approach with involvement in process design and maximizing performance and increasing productivity, with many Engineering Heads seeking out Engineers who understand software and HMI systems, understand modern control systems, can carry out modifications, configure, diagnose and fault find on PLC's, and understand industrial networking such as Ethernet, Profibus and ASI. This march of the machine and move towards automation is proving beneficial to Maintenance Engineers with Control System, Automation or Electrical skills as more career opportunities are opening up for them and in higher paid roles compared to their Mechanically biased Maintenance Engineer counterparts. Our view based on speaking to senior Engineering figures within the Food industry is that Electrical skills will increasingly dominate over Mechanical skills and the role of the modern Maintenance Engineer will focus more on systems engineering, continuous improvement, productivity improvement, programming of software, with much less emphasis on ‘hands-on’ preventative and reactive maintenance work.