Attracting, retaining & retraining engineering talent

Posted on 17 May 2018 by The Manufacturer

When discussing the skills gap, almost all the emphasis is placed on how to bring new young talent into industry. Rarely do we talk about what companies should or should not do when it comes to looking after the talent they already have on board.

The same applies to attracting recruits from other companies. Colin Bagnall says getting it wrong can be a serious problem.

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It should be relatively simple to keep engineers happy.

There is little point in trying to bring new talent into your business if you have a track record of failing to look after the talent you already have.

As an engineer, I know what it takes to keep engineers happy, it is relatively simple: we like to be challenged; we want to work with the latest and greatest equipment and components. We want to work with equipment that we read about in magazines or see at technology shows and seminars that we attend.

To be and belong to the best

What we don’t want is to be part of inefficient or outdated systems, such as I have witnessed, where operators are employed to count a product, pass that product to another operator, who adds a set of instructions before passing it to another operator to put it in a box, that’s three operators completing a basic task.

It’s a complete waste of resources and plays a part in demotivating our engineers, especially those who want to make the manufacturing process more productive.

It is a fact of business that no matter how good our manufactured product is, someone will always be able to produce a product that can compete with it. Therefore, manufacturing must never stop improving at every level. As soon as we sit back and think we have made it to number one, we will soon be overtaken.

Engineers want and need to be set targets. We want our processes to be the best, to be the most modern throughout our company. We absolutely hate it that one of our company’s plants elsewhere in the country, or the world, has a better control system than our now outdated system.

It is even worse reading in social media, magazines or learning at tech shows that our competition has just installed the latest system or is partnering with a major player within the automation and technology world.

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I’m sure I am no different from my peers in really wanting to have someone I can look to as a role model, someone who represents what I want to achieve in my career. If that is an immediate superior that’s fantastic.

Some of my best technical discussions were with my last boss; for example, debating the best ways to complete an engineering task, it didn’t even matter whether we agreed or not.

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Does your company feel engineers are a drain or a waste of resource?

To have a skilled boss who shares a passion for engineering is fantastic. It means we get to use the best available technology, and it means the engineering team has backing and a voice.

How is it in your business? Does your company feel engineers are a drain or a waste of resource? If so, your company is beginning to stagnate.

Or are your engineering management teams so operations-orientated that they are blind to the opportunities presented by new technologies?

If this is happening, it means the culture is stuck, and in all likelihood engineering teams are demotivated. The only way to change it is to bring in new blood, recruit apprentices and new talent, and introduce continuous professional development for your engineers.

How to attract top engineering talent?

Naturally, it is important to be offering competitive salaries and conditions so that engineers might think about leaving their current jobs to join you. What is less obvious is the need to keep your company image fresh and clean.

When I am thinking about applying for a new role, I look at the company’s website. I like to see if they have had any positive news recently. I check out the engineering manager’s background and the company culture.

I want to work with people who can challenge me as well as be challenged by me – in a positive way of course!

Even less obvious, but just as important, is to ensure your company’s name is not appearing negatively in social media.

A former colleague, a highly experienced and qualified engineer, has a slight hearing issue. Having spent some time working with him, I can tell you this does not pose a problem at all.

He applied for seven (yes, seven!) roles within the company; for three of them he was by far the best candidate, but was overlooked, with frankly inadequate explanations from the non-engineering personnel who are now in management.

He contemplated quitting engineering after being moved into a process function, with no obvious way out. He was sent a random social media message from an engineer who wanted to find out about the company before accepting a new role, and he understandably offered negative but honest feedback. The upshot was that the potential employee decided to not take the job.

What training should we be offering to our talent?

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Is your engineering management team so operations-orientated that they are blind to the opportunities presented by new technologies?

From my own experience, I believe it is vital that companies allow their engineering employees to grow by taking qualifications in new technologies. I was obliged to complete a Six Sigma course and step back from the engineering and manufacturing side to work purely in automation integration.

I wanted my company to invest in my technical expertise by funding a degree in automation to benefit me and the company for the future. The engineering management team decided this was not relevant for my job in automation, so I funded the degree myself. Which tells you all you need to know about the company.

As mentioned, the company strongly believes in lean manufacturing processes, and that is fine, but it still requires qualified engineers with the right skillsets. I believe we should be training in new technologies such as cybersecurity, networking protocols and programming.

Our lower-level technicians and engineers should also be encouraged to learn new

skills, perhaps through NVQs, to help them achieve more. Using the right strategy of support and encouragement, the company may well discover new engineering talent who will want to go further and build their careers – within the company.

Colin Bagnall, control systems engineer and mature student