With the challenge of hiring and retaining good talent becoming more acute, engineering firms are rethinking their recruitment strategies
Barbara Horwitz, Associate Editor
Like it or not, the cliche it sure is hard to find good help these days-has taken on a whole new meaning for M/E firms.
In fact, of the hundreds of engineering firms responding to Consulting-Specifying Engineer's recent Giants survey, almost half described recruiting and retaining quality engineers as the biggest issue facing their firm in the new millennium.
'The problem is that the number of new students going into engineering continues to go down and the need for engineers continues to go up,' explains Skip Gast, director of employment and training for Black & Veatch, Kansas City, Mo.
With less talent to go around, engineering firms have been forced to step up their recruitment efforts. Granted, the situation hasn't quite reached the proportions of the NBA draft, but at the same time, engineers-both recent college graduates and senior-level designers-are increasingly being wooed with perks, challenging work and career advancement opportunities.
As M/E firms around the country compete for approximately 70,000 engineering graduates every year, not only are they contending with each other, but also with Silicon valley, manufacturers, laboratories and universities.
'This year and the past couple years we've spent more on campus recruiting than we ever have,' states Roger Wozny, P.E., president of The Schemmer Associates, Inc., Omaha, Neb. For Wozny's staff, this has meant visiting campuses more frequently, becoming active on faculty advisory boards, redesigning marketing and recruiting brochures and increasing the size of the firm's internship program.
Recruiters at Brinjac Engineering Inc. in Harrisburg, Penn., have also found their firm's internship program to be an effective way to attract young engineers.
'By bringing in more interns and getting them involved in our corporate culture, it's our hope that when it comes time to sign on the dotted line, they'll be interested in going with us,' explains Thomas Finnerty, Brinjac's marketing director.
Going a step beyond internships and faculty advisory boards, The Austin Company encourages its engineers to actually teach at universities. With offices around the country, the Cleveland-based firm also encourages each office to maintain active relationships with at least two colleges in their region.
With connections at 15 to 20 universities, John R. Harrington, P.E., vice president of design and engineering for the firm, claims that working with school placement offices has resulted in quite a number of new hires.
Ronald Mineo, P.E., a principal at Joseph R. Loring & Associates, New York City, says his firm had been maintaining more than a dozen campus contacts, but found that it was just too difficult to keep up.
'We've had to pare it down to five to seven universities to really focus in on,' says Mineo. 'We've identified those universities where we really like their programs and where we've had good success.'
On the other end of the spectrum, recruiters from Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB), New York City, spend time at more than 40 different campuses throughout the school year.
'Our aim is to show a presence at schools year-round through brown bag seminars, participation in lecture series, scholarship support, etc.,' says Patrick Schaffner, PB's director of corporate staffing.
Networking for talent
In addition to college placement offices and career fairs, engineering firms have found the Internet to be a much more effective resume collector than traditional newspaper advertisements, which seem to be going out of style.
Recruiters actively post job openings on job boards such as Monster.com and HotJobs.com, as well as more specialized Web sites like Buildingteam.com, EngineerJobs.com and the National Society of Professional Engineers' home page, www.nspe.com.
While the use of headhunters is yet another option available to engineers, the reviews are mixed.
'We have worked with recruiters, but we are finding that they are in the same position we are in; they can't find the people either,' Schemmer's Wozny points out.
In cases where Wozny's firm does decide to enlist the services of a headhunter, compensation is dealt with on a retainer basis instead of a contingency fee. 'We pay them this way so that the recruiters will take more of an interest in our company and become part of our team.'
To supplement the efforts of hired recruiters or to avoid the expense altogether, firms such as Lockwood Greene, Spartanburg, S.C., have chosen to go the networking route, whether it's with professional organizations, social clubs or even religious groups.
Another firm, van Zelm Heywood & Shadford, based in West Hartford, Conn., has found that the manufacturers who call on them are more than eager volunteers willing to spread the word and make referrals for the firm's employment openings.
But when it comes down to it, probably the best networking is done internally with one's own engineers.
According to Black & Veatch's Gast, when his recruiters successfully hire good talent, it is their hope that these high-caliber employees will turn around and attempt to recruit quality engineers that they know in the field.
In fact, 10 percent of the firm's hires last year came from employee referrals, and Gast hopes to raise that percentage to between 20 and 25 percent this year.
Recruiters at PB, who share the same philosophy, recently doubled the cash bounty offered as part of their employee referral program to $2,000, not to mention an end-of-the-year drawing for a car or $25,000 in cash.
Keeping engineers happy
While it may seem that bringing new talent on board is at least half the battle, most engineers beg to differ.
'I think the more difficult problem is being smart enough to keep people,' notes Mickey Kupperman, P.E., president and CEO of A. Epstein Sons International, Chicago. 'Finding engineers is a one-time event, but keeping them is an everyday activity.'
Kupperman holds that the best way to achieve this is to really understand what motivates young engineers.
'Probably the single most important aspect, even more important than the money and benefits, is if the work is exciting and fulfilling,' Kupperman claims. '[Young engineers] want to understand the context of their job and have a more holistic view of a project. They are also very much team players and they like the whole collaborative process.'
Kupperman also speculates that family has become more of a priority for today's engineer. For example, he points out that there was a lot of traffic in Chicago this year on Halloween afternoon because many young fathers were going home early to be with their kids for trick or treating. Consequently, a smart employer will take these needs into consideration and offer benefits such as 'flex time' and the option to occasionally work from home.
An interesting benefit offered by Schemmer Associates is their subsidized employee-assistance program: engineers can confidentially access and utilize the services of professionals such as attorneys, social workers and financial planners for help with personal matters. Wozny adds that the firm also offers an education-assistance program, service awards and alternative working schedules, and that a new employee stock-ownership program is now in the works.
Even more effective than the programs and perks, however, is the ability to offer engineers diversified and challenging work opportunities, say recruiters.
For instance, Dennis M. Raymond, vice president of human resources for The Austin Company, claims that the firm's involvement in design-build projects gives Austin's engineers exposure to many aspects of engineering and construction.
'Our projects are wide in scope, so engineers don't get stuck in a pigeonhole, designing only pipes or pumps,' says Raymond. 'In addition, our local offices are relatively small, so people have the chance to get very involved. You don't have to be with the company too long to be given the opportunity to take on real responsibility.'
Similarly, Mineo of Joseph R. Loring states, 'We move people around so that they get exposure to different types of work, different clients and different scales of projects. That keeps them interested.'
Keep it personal
Working toward greater retention, both A. Epstein and Sons International and Black & Veatch have chosen to invest in training management personnel to help them understand and be sensitive to the psyche of young engineers. Consequently, when hiring managers, the firm's recruiters evaluate the candidate's interpersonal relationship skills and his or her ability to effectively deal with young people.
'The No. 1 reason people take a job and the No. 1 reason they leave is their boss,' claims Black & Veatch's Gast.
For Brinjac Engineering, if and when their engineers do decide to leave, exit interviews are routinely performed.
'Unfortunately, it's 'post-mortem,' but we can take advantage of the information and make some changes to the benefits for the current staff,' says Brinjac's Finnerty.
Not only does van Zelm Heywood & Shadford conduct such exit interviews, but management makes a concerted effort to keep up good relations with former employees. According to President and CEO Bob Hickey, P.E., more often than not, exiting engineers decide that those greener pastures aren't as green as they thought and will return to the firm within a year.
Another appealing aspect of the firm's hierarchical structure is the fact that career development is not only offered through management, but through technical advancement as well. Hickey explains that the firm's management and technical career tracks closely parallel each other with regard to recognition and salaries. Consequently, the setup is quite appealing for engineers who want to stay on the technical side, but still want career advancement.
Shive-Hattery, headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is another firm that invests heavily in career development in an attempt to keep its engineers on board for the long haul. According to Gloria Frost, director of human resources, the firm is divided into six design offices. As part of the firm's career-development program-in which over two-thirds of the employees are enrolled-engineers sit down with a design officer from a discipline other than their own to map out a plan that will expose them to new developmental opportunities.
The bottom line
At the end of the day, M/E firms are slowly realizing that a great deal of creativity and resources must be invested to deal with the perennial challenge of finding and keeping good engineers.
In fact, Black & Veatch's Gast posits that the cost impact of employee turnover is so significant that, strictly from a cost-benefit standpoint, it is imperative to allocate more resources to help ensure that engineers are content with their jobs.
'We spent most of our lives learning how to take great care of our clients. Now we have to spend as much time, if not more, on our employees,' Kupperman concludes.
Searching for Senior-Level Employees
As taxing as it is to compete for a sparse number of engineering graduates each year, engineering firms unanimously agree that recruiting experienced, senior-level engineers is even more of a challenge.
'This is probably where it's most difficult, because most individuals in this category already have a job and they are not looking,' explains Roger Wozny, P.E., president of The Schemmer Associates Inc., Omaha, Neb.
One of the ways in which Joseph R. Loring & Associates, New York City, deals with this challenge is by constantly being in a hiring mode.
'We are continually searching and interviewing as many people as we can. As soon as we find someone who's qualified, we hire them, even if there isn't a specific position available,' says Ronald Mineo, P.E., a principal at the firm.
Fred Marsh, corporate director of human resources for Lockwood Greene, Spartanburg, S.C., believes that facilitating better communication among the firm's offices nationwide would potentially help with the situation. In fact, Marsh is currently looking at software that can scan in resumes to make them easily accessible and searchable on a company-wide database.
One of Albert-Garaudy & Associates' tactics is to contract the services of retired engineers to help fill the need for experienced engineers, according to Lloyd Arbo, P.E., business development manager.
The Job Market and the Economy
While the United States has experienced a slowdown in the economy and a number of layoffs at large corporations, does this mean there are more qualified mechanical and electrical engineers looking for jobs?
Roger Wozny, P.E., president of The Schemmer Associates, Omaha, Neb., doesn't think so. Wozny claims that many of these layoffs have occurred in the areas of sales and administration and the situation has not affected the availability of technical people.
But John R. Harrington, P.E., vice president of design and engineering for The Austin Company, Cleveland, begs to differ.
'With the high-tech industry slowing down, this is reducing some pressure on engineering firms who have lost people to high-tech companies,' Harrington claims. 'I believe that it's going to free up some engineers.'
While Bob Hickey, P.E., president and CEO of van Zelm Heywood & Shadford, West Hartford, Conn., agrees that the numbers of job-seeking engineers has not increased, he also believes that concerns about job security have been heightened so that engineers are currently a little less likely to jump ship.