To have and to hold

Employers are struggling to find new ways of attracting and keeping suitably qualified engineers. Liam O’Brien and David Fowler find out how they are coping

There just aren’t enough capable engineers to go around. The complaint, long expressed by human resource managers in UK manufacturing, has recently become markedly more prevalent.

Against a backdrop of low unemployment and a buoyant economy, industry is struggling to fill its engineering vacancies. Consult any recruitment agency or management consultant specialising in the sector and they will admit that filling engineering jobs with qualified and able candidates is all too often problematic.

Shortages exist in the electrical and electronic, software and systems sectors; among computer numerical control operatives and technicians, and design and production engineers.

To make matters worse, the number of students taking engineering courses at university has dropped, and many who graduate in the subject are lured into other professions.

Mark Sealy, partner at PA Consulting Manufacturing Practice, says: ‘We work with large engineering companies who have massive problems attracting and retaining good engineers. What they are saying is that they can’t find the quality of engineers they want at all levels and when they do, they find it very hard to retain them.’ While there is a problem at all skill levels, nowhere is it as marked or as potentially damaging than at graduate level. Engineering graduates – the strategic thinkers that shape industry’s future – have been deserting British manufacturing and taking their much sought after analytical skills to higher-paid and more appealing sectors such as the City, IT, management consultancy, e-commerce and the media.

Companies have a limited range of options to respond to this problem. One is to increase salaries. But although starting salaries for graduates have increased in the last two years, there is often limited room for manoeuvre within the constraints imposed by salary scales. The other main option is to offer benefits, chief among which is continuing professional development.

Nevertheless, the situation has become so severe that manufacturers have been driven to pay ‘golden hellos’ to graduates, something previously the domain of City firms. Earlier this month an Engineering Employers’ Federation survey found that among the benefits employers were offering new staff were help with paying off student loans,contributions towards the cost ofbuying a new home, and private health care and insurance packages.

Mike South, managing director of Jonathan Lee Recruitment, says a more common and safer approach in engineering is to offer graduates a bonus after they complete a three or six-month induction process. This is still comparatively rare, though.

He adds: ‘Beyond a certain point, a short-term gain in salary is not what graduates are after. Most of them are looking for very high quality continuing professional development and training – a well-structured developmentprogramme that doesn’t just fizzle out at the end of year one.’ Back in the 1970s all the majormanufacturers had clearly-defined graduate training programmes. In their first couple of years, recruits would be moved around from department to department to gain experience of everything from quality control to financial and administrative functions.

In the tighter economic climate of the 1980s and 1990s, many companies abandoned this approach. Now they are having to consider reinstating them, or something like them. ‘If companies can offer a good graduate developmentprogramme they will have more luck attracting recruits,’ says South.

The problem may then shift towards retention. Many employers, despitesuccessfully recruiting and training graduates then suffer the frustration of watching them leave.

‘Why do they leave after four years? Because many programmes aren’t developed beyond that,’ says South. ‘But now, with personal development plans and the introduction of employment standards such as Investors in People, we have the tools to go on forever.’ Appraisals are another important tool, says South. ‘Managers who tend to be autocratic may use appraisals to knock poor performance. If you want to lose people that’s a good way to do it.’ Instead of going down that particular road, companies should use appraisals to talk more about future prospects. ‘Companies can transform staff turnover rates by simply listening to them,’ says South.

Jonathan Lee Recruitment has worked with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Industry Forum, which was set up to promote leanproduction techniques in the motor industry supply chain.

The forum needed to attract enough high calibre engineers, who then had to go through a rigoroustraining programme run by ‘master engineers’ from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen and General Motors, so holding on to the trainees for the duration was a key issue for them.

The Industry Forum is a slightly unusual case, in that recruits are asked to make a five-year commitment to the organisation, after which it is expected that some will return to key jobs in the automotive industry.

Industry Forum senior adviserStefan March says the company uses a regular appraisal system to look at staff members’ ambitions and goals for one, three and five years ahead.

‘Career development is mapped out from when they join,’ says March. Recruits can expect to become solo engineers – running workshops on their own with client companies after 18 months, and senior engineers after three years.

‘Beyond that, we ask how can they develop in order to continue with the Industry Forum in a senior management role, or go back to industry?’ Funding further qualifications Many companies are now finding that there is still strong demand among employees for subsidised study, particularly leading to an MBA. One such company is Ingenco, a consultancy business formed in May this year in a buyout from Scottish Power.

Human relations manager Suzanne Burns says: ‘Commitment to continued professional development along with salary and benefits aligned to market rates is an important thing for employers to keep an eye on.’ Ingenco is a provider of managementservices to owners of heat and power systems and employs 400 staff, mostly in technical or scientific roles. The company places a priority on professional development to the extent of funding MScs or MBAs.

‘If a reasonable case can be made, we fund a lot of programmes of that kind,’ says Burns. ‘It contributes both to the individual’s skills and ties them to the company for the duration of the course. In general, we find that people respond to the commitment from the company.’ In most cases, Ingenco will completely fund the course on condition that the individual concerned agrees to study mainly in their own time. This isconsidered to be a useful measure of their commitment to the course.

Burns says Ingenco’s strategy for retaining staff has proved successful. A measure of that success is that the company came through a rather protracted nine-month period between the announcement of the buyout and the completion of the sale relatively unscathed.

The key to a successful policy is summed up by the SMMT Industry Forum’s Stefan March: ‘It’s about being proactive rather than reactive. Many businesses wait until someone resigns and only then ask: “Can we offer you a pay rise or promotion?” Our engineers are highly marketable people, career-conscious and literate. Unless we actively discuss their future with them we risk losing them.’