The future of professional engineers: retention

Young engineers are an important resource for firms—recruiting, training, and retaining fresh talent is important for a company’s future success. Here, engineers with experience in attracting and developing new talent share advice to help their professional development while increasing their value to the company. Engineering firms also discuss how they are retaining new talent and the progress of young engineers.

By CFE Media July 27, 2016



Meghan Calabro, PE, Assistant Department Manager, Telecom & Network Engineering, Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, Mo.

Michael J. Ferreira, PE, Vice President Development, Jensen Hughes, Baltimore

David Harris, Senior Recruiter, Stanley Consultants, Phoenix

William E. Koffel, PE, FSFPE, President, Koffel Associates Inc., Columbia, Md.

Douglas Lacy, PE, LEED AP, Vice President, WSP + ccrd | A WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff Co., Dallas

Paul Meyer, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CEM, CBCP, Senior Vice President, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, New York City

Christopher O’Connor, Engineering Operations Manager, EYP Architecture & Engineering, Albany, N.Y.

Ron Parsley, PE, LEED AP, NCEES, Electrical Engineer, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Madison, Wis.

CSE: How does your firm retain young talent?

Koffel: The firm received a Corporate Culture Award in the Baltimore metro area. We offer a benefits program that is competitive with larger engineering firms. We promote individual professional and personal growth. Despite the growing nature of the firm, we attempt to retain a family-like work environment and are conscious of the need for a work-life balance. In the past year, we created the Young Professionals Group, which plans social events for members and all employees. The group also organizes at least one community service project and is often asked for direct input on specific issues faced by the company. Lastly, a representative of the group actively participates in corporate-management meetings.

Harris: One of the ways we retain our young talent is by retaining seasoned talent. These experts in their disciplines regularly mentor and guide young engineers. I have heard from many of our young engineers that this is important to them. They feel they owe a debt of gratitude to their mentors. Young staff members also appreciate the wide variety of opportunities available to them. We have offices around the world and offer young engineers the opportunity to travel and contribute to important projects around the globe.

Parsley: Challenging and interesting project work is key to ongoing engagement. We believe our compensation structure and flexibility contribute as well.

O’Connor: A recent Deloitte survey provides great insight into the millennial mindset, and we’ve been putting this feedback to use as we evolve our engagement programs at EYP. The survey makes clear that compensation is still king, as we’d expect, but leadership development, advancement, and a sense of purpose were the next-tier items that resonate with our vision. We’ve considered a separate training curriculum altogether for our "young professionals," but we believe a few key areas resonate regardless of generation. The differentiator is that the message needs to be tailored a bit different for each generation in order for it to be meaningful. With those common threads as the foundation, we work to make sure each session contains a learning element, a social element, and a cultural element. Over the course of a year, we believe these workshops help employees find their own sense of purpose, build their skills, and strengthen their connection to each other.

Calabro: To retain young talent, I try to advocate on behalf of my employees and provide them with opportunities and connections that they can act upon to grow their careers. The more I know about an employee, the more I can understand his/her motivations and aspirations. Through my experiences managing new through 4-year engineers at Burns & McDonnell, I have found three major factors that typically determine employee engagement, thus retention: They want to work on interesting, important projects, have unique opportunities for career development, and be part of the team. As a manager, I am constantly thinking about these factors and what I can do to engage and empower my employees and foster a culture of teamwork.

Ferreira: Our firm primarily retains young talent by giving them responsibilities proportional to their abilities and providing a high-quality work environment. We also engage them on very interesting projects; many engineers stay with us because they enjoy what they are working on. We strive to offer a variety of work assignments to avoid boredom associated with repetitive tasking.

Lacy: Retaining great talent requires creating an environment where talent is challenged on a daily basis, where they feel engaged in the process, where each person works to serve a purpose that aligns with their core values, and where their contributions are appreciated, both financially and socially. Finding the correct balance between each of these goals varies not only between generations but also amongst individuals within any demographic group.

Meyer: At WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, we are constantly monitoring the work-life balance of the staff. We have an internal work hard/play hard motto. For instance, we shut down the office early and have a Halloween costume party where even the president shows up in costume. We have events outside of work geared toward younger staff including both local sports teams, such as softball, and higher-level competitions, such as our U.S. and Canada divisions playing each other in ice hockey. Our team also participates in public events like marathons, a community-supported agriculture program, game night, and other events geared toward having fun. During the summer, we have a 9/80 workweek program with every other Friday off so staff can spend 3-day weekends with family. For work, we have the training, mentoring, and personal-development programs to help staff members grow quickly.

CSE: Does your firm currently have engineers who started out with you right after college and have been with the company for 10 or more years? What do these career progressions look like, and how do you ensure these engineers are moving up through your firm’s ranks to become principals?

Ferreira: Our firm has an incredible retention rate. Many engineers, such as myself, have been with the firm for more than 20 years—with Jensen Hughes being their first full-time job right out of college. Most of our current senior management staff have advanced through the ranks to their current positions. This provides an example to younger engineers that this type of career progression is possible.

Meyer: We have many employees who started after college and now have 10+ years of service. There are formal metrics in place to track your career at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, so staff knows what must be done to get promoted—especially to the senior staff levels, such as associate and higher. Staff members are tracked annually against the expectations sheets produced by human resources. They discuss this with their supervisors and work toward how to get to the next level. One example started as a computer-aided drafting (CAD) operator for the first 2 or 3 years and picked up more responsibility as he proved he was capable. He continued to grow and received several promotions along the way. Now at the 14-year point in his tenure, he is a candidate for vice president. A second example started with the firm in 2008 in an entry-level position, and over the following 2 years, worked under one of the firm’s vice presidents where he was able to learn and develop technical and client-management skills. Over the next few years, he was promoted four times, including a promotion to senior staff and team leader in 2012. The engineering business is a people business, and the talent within your organization is the most important asset. We need to recognize staff needs and understand how we can deliver on those needs. Communication is key. We try and keep an open line of communication with all staff members, particularly with individuals who have potential to get to that next level, and give them the tools and direction needed to achieve that.

Parsley: Yes, the majority of these individuals are at least at the project engineer level. This follows a career progression from entry engineer to engineer to project engineer, then potentially to senior project engineer, which requires a PE. The progression then continues to project manager, market leader, and principal. We encourage employees to pursue design challenges that interest them and that are valued in the marketplace. We then provide the support, guidance, and opportunities to pursue those challenges.

Harris: As a 103-year-old company, we regularly have employees celebrating anniversaries of 25 years and more. This year, we have close to 50 employees company-wide celebrating their 10th anniversary. Gayle Roberts, president of Stanley Consultants, routinely encourages employees to volunteer for assignments or "raise their hands" as a way to advance in their career. We have established career paths in sales, management, and project management. Depending on the skill level, motivation, and available opportunities, the sky is the limit for advancement up the ranks.

Lacy: Throughout our company, including in our Dallas office, we have had great success promoting from within. Many employees have joined us directly from university, some were summer interns with us before starting full time, and the majority are still with us 10, 15, and almost 20 years past graduation. An example of the progress we have had from our graduates includes our managing directors of our Denver and Phoenix offices. Both started with us in Dallas straight after graduation; they are now senior vice presidents who started up remote offices and have grown those offices to be sizable and self-sufficient regional offices.

CSE: Have you had any problems or challenges with retaining young engineers and recent hires?

Ferreira: Our biggest problem retaining young engineers is that many engineers who travel to a new location to begin their careers often want to return home to be near family at some point later in their careers. Because there are very few fire protection programs in the country, engineers tend to be from the regions near these schools. This leads to some office locations having difficulty hiring and retaining staff.

Meyer: The current job market is very competitive for employers. Some competing firms are offering outrageous salary increases to junior staff to jump ship. While this may solve that company’s immediate staffing needs, it disrupts the marketplace and skews the salary-growth curves.

Lacy: When economic times are good, as they are right now in many of our markets, it can naturally cause some staff members to entertain other opportunities, whether for geographical or financial reasons. However, the main hiring constraint we face currently is finding 5- to 10-year experienced engineers due to the loss the industry underwent as a result of the 2008 downturn and the time thereafter. Qualified individuals either left our industry altogether or did not attend school to become engineers during that period. As a result, we are feeling the effects in hiring today.

Parsley: Not really. We sometimes lose talent when a significant other is still in school and then gets a job in another area, but we have fairly good retention.

CSE: In what ways, if any, do you feel working to help boost job satisfaction for your firm’s younger staff differs from more experienced staff?

Lacy: The factors that affect job satisfaction vary throughout your career. Younger staff members generally tend to desire a workplace where they feel their contributions are adequately recognized and where they are being given responsibilities (whether they are ready for them or not) that allow them to grow professionally. More experienced staff are less reliant on daily affirmation and find more satisfaction from financial compensation, work autonomy, consideration for paid leave during life events, and realizing achievements of their long-term career goals.

Ferreira: Younger staff is more likely to not be solely focused on salaries and will often speak about work-life balance, recognition, and work environment as motivators. Older staff tends to be driven more by salary, title, and responsibilities within the organization.

Parsley: Variety, challenges, and growth are important to all levels of staff, but there is a different degree of intensity in the first years of younger staff members’ careers.

Meyer: I feel that younger staff is appreciative of training and mentoring. Many graduating students ask about our training programs during interviews because they have no confidence due to fear of the unknown in their first job. One of my techniques is to answer a question posed by a junior engineer and then go on to explain the surrounding knowledge that they did not know to ask about. When dealing with more experienced staff, satisfaction comes more from professional growth in responsibility and/or status and less from simple technical education.

O’Connor: Going back to this idea of purpose and having a sense of connection, I’ve personally noticed that young engineers are very interested in understanding bigger-picture challenges and strategies the firm has. When I sit one-on-one and give them a window into these things, whether it is finance, operations, or maybe process challenges we’re facing, and some ideas we’re considering to solve them, it’s like a light bulb comes on and suddenly they see their own role here differently. We really are a firm with few barriers, and those who are passionate about driving change can do so here. But it’s clear that young professionals need to be told, "Hey, did you know you can change that if you want to?" They need permission and a little extra support to get their ideas off the ground, but then, watch out!

CSE: Describe the differences between working with and retaining millennials (Generation Y), Generation X, and baby boomers. Describe the different communication, retention, or other needs each generation has.

Parsley: Baby boomers tend to need drafting support. Generation X tends to prefer drafting support. Generation Y tends to draft their own work even if provided assistance via redline opportunity for others to draft. Another way to look at this is that millennials seem more interested in following their passions. They often will only accept jobs that they want to do. Retaining them relates more to how they feel about the job than previous generations. Generation X seems to be more self-motivated. If they can’t find something that works for the problem, they create their own solution. Retaining them has more to do with providing the creative freedom and tools they need to do the job their way. Baby boomers have been there and done that. They value continuing education and staying updated. It is imperative for a growing firm to have some of each. Setting up teams and learning environments allows this to flourish. Consulting is different from what you would expect when you start out. It is a cumulative career. Every year and every project provide different experiences and knowledge that can be used for new projects and experiences. This is realized as you progress in years, but is not understood immediately. Senior staff members have a lot of knowledge and past experience to share and should look to share whenever possible. They have better communication skills and have dealt with most types of situations so they bring earned confidence to any situation. Younger staff members do not have the communication skills of senior staff, which can cause anxiety and may compromise effective communication. They have less knowledge and past experience to pull from, so they may not have answers to questions as senior staff would. They also may answer incorrectly instead of saying they need to look into it and will get back to you.

Lacy: Regardless of the generational category you are assigned, each stage of life has always brought different needs from each staff member. Younger staff members tend to seek out highly defined lists of which milestones must be met to advance careers. They want their contributions adequately recognized and they want a level of work flexibility, in either schedule or location, that many companies are not yet accustomed to providing to junior staff. By contrast, more experienced staff members have become accustomed to the "9-to-5" nature of corporations and tend to question customary practices less than younger counterparts. In addition, older staff members have different priorities that tend to focus more on planning for the future or providing for families. They want adequate leave for life events, work autonomy, and adequate financial compensation.

Meyer: I am a baby boomer and my staff is mostly Generation Y, which leaves a big gap. We have different norms and behaviors that we each feel can be considered better than the other’s. I cannot demand that my workaholic baby boomer mentality is the only way for them to work successfully. Millennials like fun, they are outspoken, impatient for promotion, and demand a work-life balance. We need to show them a career path and help them achieve it. While I may get to work at 7 a.m., I am flexible with their arrival times because I know that they will get the job done in their own way. Millennials think they need to change the world for the better, so let them. They love to support causes, such as all things green.

Ferreira: Older generations like to tell "war stories" about what they went through and how hard they had to work when they were young engineers. They adhere to the notion that you must pay your dues before advancing, just like they did. Younger generations (millennials especially) tend to dismiss these war stories and want to advance quickly, as they feel they "deserve it," often before they are ready to advance.

Author Bio: Since its founding in 2010, CFE Media and Technology has provided engineers in manufacturing, commercial and industrial buildings, and manufacturing control systems with the knowledge they need to improve their operational efficiency. CFE delivers the right information at the right time around the world through a variety of platforms.