Are Engineers in Short Supply?

As the owner manager of an engineering business for the past 15 years I have come to appreciate the complexities that are part and parcel of my role and my company. Challenges are presented every day and we deal with them. My company has a great reputation within industry, a highly skilled, highly motivated and loyal workforce and we share ambition.

Ambition and business growth present their own set of challenges, challenges that are large in number, wide in variety and are highly complex.

Most, if not all, growing SME’s regardless of their sector will come across a large number of common challenges. Recruitment being one of them; as an engineering company, recruitment proves to be one of Optima Control Solutions’ most challenging issues.

I hesitate at the temptation to jump on the “Skills Shortage” soapbox that is so often referred to by companies, Government ministers and quangos who reel off statistic after statistic, however compelling a case they might make. I think that to refer you to my own experience in the recruitment field might present a fairer case study. One that might resonate with your own experience, whether an employer or an employee.

Now, just to put some perspective on my company’s position in the UK economy and to explain why there’s a chance it might indeed resonate with your own, here comes a single statistic…

In October this year (2010) the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills released the following data on the UK economic structure for 2009.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) together accounted for more than half of employment (59.8 per cent) and turnover of (49.0 per cent) in the UK.

An interesting fact; one that leads me to question whether the dynamics of our modern day SME lead economy is a telling factor in the recruitment challenge?

Optima Control Solutions ltd. is a specialist control systems engineering company with expertise in variable speed drives, motion, PLC and SCADA applications. We number 20 employees and have a good trading history and a defined growth strategy. Employment is obviously a core element in our performance and our growth plan.

We find it difficult to source engineers with the skill set that we need.

I am aware of the dichotomy that there are engineers in need of work and a co-existent engineering skills shortage (I drew the obvious conclusion too). So how can the two situations exist simultaneously?

Well, engineering is given little detailed consideration by anyone that is not closely interested in the field (by means of their profession) and so the true diversity of the constituent disciplines that make up engineering are just not understood by everyone. The degree of specialisation is acute. This limits the chance of migration without re-training, which is accentuated in the SME sector, here’s why…

One key characteristic that must be the same for every SME is the need to employ people that can contribute to the business within a short time frame. New employees must start their roles as able and willing members of a highly efficient team. This is essential for any SME’s success.

There is very little (if any) commercial momentum in an SME that allows anyone appreciable time to become contributory. The cost of training is very often prohibitively expensive, the pressures to produce are significant and the consequence of misjudging a prospective employee’s ability are potentially catastrophic.

The commercial risks in any business are significant, margins for error are fine and SME’s are so delicately balanced that they can ill afford to make any business mistakes – recruitment is one of the most volatile areas of a small to medium enterprise.

Of late our view on employment has been influenced by some other company specific circumstances; since 1995 we have had 3 engineers leave our employment. The first fourteen years ago, one 5 years ago and the third (a retiree) last year. This low staff turnover is a characteristic of which we are proud and carries many advantages to us and to our clients.

One of the side issues that our staff retention record presents is that our workforce gets older each year, which means that we will need to grow if we are to draught in younger engineering talent; and we have both a need, as a business, and an obligation as a knowledge bank to educate young engineers in our field of expertise so that our skills will be available in the future.

Incidentally, my observations from within the automation industry is that the people we deal with day-to-day have been in the industry for a similar period of time and there are some, but not many, younger members of the engineering fraternity.

Why then does it prove so difficult to find the type of talent required to meet these obligations with the constraints that SME’s have.

Fundamentally, appropriate engineers are too few for a number of well-documented reasons.

The engineering profession is perceived as carrying low professional esteem (compared to a doctor or a lawyer for instance).

Company management professionals regard the role as a low value commercial contributor to business (tending towards an a necessary but unwanted overhead).

The professional and creative reward that being an engineer gives is rarely matched (or even approached) by any other profession and is only really appreciated by those already operating as an engineer. It is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of the discipline.

The name “engineer” is used as a catchall to describe engineering all-comers, from household names such as Brunel, Stevenson and Faraday, to the jobbing person that will weld you a steel plate or repair your washing machine. All interesting, worthwhile and skilful roles. The issue being that the image that the title “Engineer” conjures (to our prospective high achieving workforce) can all to often be closer to the jobber than the professional, resulting in the industry losing much of the best available talent to better marketed competing professions.

It is essential therefore that the image of engineering be promoted more accurately if we are to address this, because the truth is, engineering offers a good, truly rewarding career.

The profession needs to be fully understood by the wider audience, it will then inevitably be valued much more highly.

There needs to be a professionally graded engineering award that is generally recognised.

There needs to be some clarity and understanding of the intellectual skills engineering demands. People need to acknowledge that to be an engineer is demanding, carries high responsibilities and it contributes massively to the world we live in.

Engineering presents a myriad of opportunity; it presents interesting and exciting challenges and encourages expansive thinking. It can offer worldwide travel, the chance to sample varying social and cultural divides and to actively improve every level of society globally.

Engineers ought to feel and actually be widely valued. There might then be more of them…

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