Close the skills gap

For the sake of diversity and success, it is time for engineering and technical companies to start concentrating their efforts on recruiting and retaining more women, argues Elizabeth Pollitzer

The struggle for talent is worldwide and technology skills are subject to vigorous competition. Only eight per cent of engineering and technical workers are female, so companies who want a skilled, experienced and diverse workforce should re-examine their policies and concentrate on recruiting more women.

Recent industry surveys show that the major concern for engineering businesses at the moment is not a lack of demand but rather lack of production capacity and a shortage of skilled personnel — both in the UK and many European countries.

Companies report that recruitment and retention of experienced staff, in particular at mid-career and leadership role level causes significant problems, and there is pressure to provide additional training to address knowledge and skills gaps of new recruits at all levels. Nearly 50 per cent of the companies surveyed by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) recruited from overseas in the past 12 months to cover specific skills shortages, and 71 per cent faced problems in hiring experienced staff.

Our understanding of the full cost implications of global sourcing, outsourcing and offshoring is very limited at present, and best practice is hard to identify. But the costs and benefits of well-implemented diversity policies are pretty clear, and companies struggling to secure a skilled workforce should re-examine their policies in the light of the recent Royal Academy of Engineering/ Equalitec report, Implementing Diversity Policies: Guiding Principles.

This brings together numerous examples of best practice, derived from a wide collection of experiences and case studies of schemes put in place by employers in Information Technology, Electronics and Communication (ITEC). The focus is on gender diversity because women have been persistently under-represented in the ITEC sector, with only one in five technology workers being female and the gender gap increasing steadily.

The examples quoted and discussed in the report demonstrate the benefits of having clear, coherent and thorough equality and diversity frameworks in relation to recruitment and retention of talented workers. The fact that IT ranks among the top three investments of design engineering firms, and with training becoming a key requirement for IT investment success — and consequently productivity gains — the report’s recommendations should carry an added interest for engineering employers.

There are 10 essential ways diversity policies can help companies attract and retain more women.

Vision and leadership is the number one guiding principle, simply because having the genuine support of senior leaders sends a powerful message — that diversity matters — to the rest of the organisation. The business case argument must be explicit and appeal to both senior leaders and line managers, regardless of whether the organisation operates in the public or in the private sector.

Company policies must mainstream diversity and inclusion to all levels of employment activities: recruitment and selection; induction; performance management; work practices; pay and reward; staff retention and advancement; and during restructuring and downsizing.

Education, training and knowledge building opportunities for all employees help raise awareness of diversity issues, promote best practice, improve understanding of how to manage a flexible workforce, encourage personal development, grow leadership capacity, and generate role models.

Supportive work practices and organisational cultures value flexible working options and make them available to all, not just women; welcome open dialogue where men and women can talk openly about their caring responsibilities; and promote long-term career planning where career breaks are the norm.

Open, fair and transparent recruitment and career development practices remove barriers to entry and re-entry, offer career mapping in the organisations with different types of jobs linked to associated competencies, which encourage staff to make longer-term career plans. Partnering with external bodies, like networking, increases a company’s knowledge base, improves policies, refines the business case, and creates collaborative partnerships for outreach and social responsibility objectives.

Targeted outreach and widening the recruitment net to non-traditional pools of potential talent increases the skills supply pipeline and opens up doors to women returning to the labour market after a career break and ex-graduates looking for new career challenges. Managing the supply chain, contracts, and recruitment agencies can help reward those with demonstrable commitment to diversity, going beyond simple checking what diversity and inclusion policies they have in place.

Finally, monitoring, improving and celebrating success ensures that improvements in recruitment, retention and advancement outcomes are continued.

Over 50 per cent of companies in the IET survey said they did not believe they would be able to recruit the right number of technical and engineering staff in four years’ time (compared to 40 per cent in 2006). It is clear that talent is not a commodity that can be mined on demand, and global sourcing is not the answer to skills shortages problems.

Companies should start concentrating their efforts on growing their own talent by attracting more women and investing in skills development programmes.

Dr Elizabeth Pollitzer is the director of Equalitec: Advancing Women in ITEC