Make a big deal of small advantages

Small high-tech companies can woo the top-quality staff they need to by stressing more challenging careers.

Recruitment experts call it the ‘career compass’. It illustrates the four cardinal points of an individual’s satisfaction in a job. They are: Purpose – why am I here? Direction – where am I going? Performance – how well am I doing? Support – where can I turn for help?

In a big engineering company, the compass usually works well. You know where you are and what part you play in the company strategy. There are well-trodden career paths for you to follow. Annual performance appraisals provide feedback on your progress. And the human resources department will offer career advice and counselling along the way.

But in small, high-tech companies, the career compass is a dud. Roles and responsibilities change as the company twists and turns to stay alive. Career paths are difficult to discern. Performance appraisals get left by the wayside in the rush to meet the next order. And the over-stretched personnel department leaves you to plot your own career map.

Yet recruiting, retaining and motivating the right people is crucial to small high-tech firms. So how can they compete in the labour market where big firms dominate and where the best brains and the best experience are in short supply?

At a recent workshop organised by the Institution of Electrical Engineers on recruiting and retaining staff, small firms said they face a double whammy. They cannot afford to pay for the top recruits they would like. And managers have little spare time to look after the development and careers of staff they do manage to recruit.

Professor Peter James, research associate at Ashridge Management College, has been studying career development within small firms. According to his research, large firms have one big advantage – there’s a certain security to working in large, well-known companies. People feel they will be looked after, he says.

‘Yet what really came top of the list when we asked people about motivation was challenge. What drives them is not only working with the latest techniques and the latest equipment, but managing projects and being in charge of more people, more resources.’

Flexibility and opportunity

So the key to attracting the top recruits, says James, is to offer plenty of challenges. And here small high-tech firms have the advantage. They can offer flexibility and opportunity that you can’t get in a big company. It’s an advantage small firms should promote in job interviews. But make sure the challenges are realistic, not unachievable, warns James.

Another problem for smaller firms, James says, is the lack of room for the purely technical specialist. Bigger firms will have a number of technical experts who know their particular areas very well and who contribute their expertise. ‘But it’s hard to remain a world expert in a small firm. Small companies need people to have softer, non-technical abilities such as people skills and teamworking skills, as well as technical skills.’

In addition, small firms do not do enough to target future staff while they are at university. They should offer to take in students on work placements, James says. ‘You get the opportunity to test them out, to see what they’re like. And the student can see what the company is like. Placements should be part of the recruitment process.’

But once you have recruited people, how do you keep them stretched and happy? ‘A lot of companies are in the rut of the annual appraisal,’ says James. ‘That is too long — situations and people change within a year. You need to have more regular structured meetings about how people are doing.’

Small firms need to make time to talk to staff about long-term personal development, preferably unconnected with discussions about performance. ‘But again, unless you structure them formally, these talks will always be driven out by the shorter-term performance discussions.’

James also suggests that small firms need to identify their high fliers and keep them happy. It’s a bit of a balancing act to avoid accusations of favouritism, he warns. And it’s often hard for an individual manager to decide who the high fliers are. ‘There may be aspects of a person’s capability that don’t come out in a particular job, but do in others. There needs to be some kind of collective process with the senior managers of a company having a view, rather than leaving it to individual managers.’

Finally, recruit the right people. ‘We’ve found that managers with a technical background tend to place too much emphasis on technical skills when hiring people, and too little on soft skills such as communication, teamworking and adaptability to new ideas.

‘For engineering firms, it means stepping out of the engineering culture and getting in to some of the softer areas engineers are not traditionally associated with.’

Dean Ball is managing director of specialist recruitment agency Michael Page Engineering. For him, the problem for small firms is branding. ‘Small firms don’t have a brand that attracts graduates. It’s extremely time-consuming and difficult to get their brand elevated enough to compete with the bigger names. But unless small companies can get their names in front of graduates by offering placements and doing joint R&D work with universities, they are always going to struggle.’

And because they can’t compete with the bigger names, they often compromise their standards and go for less qualified recruits, says Ball. ‘But your business is only as good as your people. The better quality you can recruit, the better your business will ultimately be. Always strive for the best you can get.’

Pitch the job better

Don’t accept that you are a small company that has no chance of attracting the right people, urges Ball. Capitalise on the fact that people who join small firms get more responsibility much earlier, he says. ‘Be proud of your company and recognise that you do have something to offer in terms of strategic involvement and broader responsibility. It’s all about pitching the job better. Tell interviewees ‘we are going to treat you as they would at Ford, but here you will be an individual within a small company’.

‘The future is bright for small firms, if they can market themselves right. Use professional resources such as recruitment agencies where possible. They will be your voice, your face, to attract people to your organisation.’

At the end of the day, says James, what a small company can provide is challenges, flexibility and a community. That offsets many of the advantages of a big firm. ‘The problem is that it raises the quality of management required. That’s the real challenge.’

Ways to win them over

Instrument company Lem Heme in Skelmersdale is best known for inventing the Hall Effect clamp-on multimeter. Part of the Lem Instruments group, it has a turnover of £15m and employs around 170 people.

‘There are always problems getting high-tech staff,’ says MD John Hinchcliffe. ‘And we are not the sexiest choice. So we’ve got to go the extra mile.’

Lem Heme looks for a range of skills — software, and mechanical and electronic engineers. ‘We have four strategies for getting the people we want,’ says Hinchcliffe. ‘First we have to create the right environment, getting over the subtle issues of morale, team spirit and of being respected and required.

‘One of the best ambassadors for our business is the engineer who says ‘I’ve come from XYZ company and here is absolutely terrific’ and then takes candidates for a walk round. So in the first interviews, we bring in our engineers and R&D staff and leave the candidate with them.’

Training programme

Another strategy is empowerment. Lem Heme has an extensive training programme. ‘We grow our own talent,’ says Hinchcliffe. ‘People can take ONCs, HNCs, HNDs and degrees. We also try to give people projects at the earliest stage. And because we have manufacturing on site, they can see their projects going out of the door. ‘We also work closely with universities to take undergraduates in their sandwich year.

If you build up good relations with them, it’s amazing how much influence course tutors have on people.’ Typically the company takes five to seven undergraduates a year and sponsors them through their final year. About half stay with the company afterwards.

Finally, says Hinchcliffe, build up a relationship with a recruitment agency which knows your firm inside out.

‘You want a long-term commitment so that the agency wants to work with you because they have a high degree of success.’