It is the question companies across the world are asking. According to one future of work expert, the answer may lie in rethinking recruitment and management.
It was in 1997 that the term “war for talent” was first coined by McKinsey & Co’s Steven Hankin. Yet in 2022, organisations are still surprised we are facing a skills shortage globally.
“The ratio of working age people is projected to fall significantly over the next 40 years and this is not a new phenomenon,” said Kim Seeling Smith, CEO and founder of Ignite Global, a company that helps organisations build and retain a future-fit workforce.
“Our birth rates have been declining. Our workforce has been ageing, and yet everybody seems to be surprised by the skills shortage.”
A month into Sydney’s 2021 COVID-19 lockdown, Seeling Smith received a call from the CEO of Northrop, a leading Australian consulting engineering firm and her longest standing engineering client, to discuss the skills shortage in Australia. The call was off the back of Infrastructure Australia predicting there would be an excess of 105,000 more engineering jobs than candidates to fill them by mid 2023.
“He said ‘I remember you and I having a conversation about this [the skills shortage] 10 years ago. I didn’t believe you then, but I believe you now’,” Seeling Smith told create.
An employees’ market
Today, skilled engineers have choice and bargaining power that didn’t exist before the COVID-19 pandemic. Traditionally the employer–employee relationship was similar to a parent–child relationship, according to Seeling Smith. But after two years of remote and then hybrid working, that analogy doesn’t fit anymore.
“[Employees] have gotten very clear on what they want and what they don’t, and they’re now willing to vote with their feet, especially in the engineering industry, because there is so much opportunity available,” she said.
“We fundamentally have to shift our paradigm around how we recruit, how we manage and how we support our staff.”
With demand outstripping supply, particularly in sectors such as infrastructure, engineering managers need to become more creative about how they recruit talent. According to Seeling Smith, one of the ways to do this is by deconstructing roles, a method that involves breaking a role into components and filling each component with different talent.
One example Seeling Smith shared was from a senior leader who deconstructed an engineering role by hiring report writers to work on reports and administrative staff to take on administrative tasks. This freed up the company’s qualified engineers to focus on design, because, as Seeling Smith pointed out, “what engineer on the planet does not want to do pure design work?”.
However, hiring for skills and experience alone can narrow the candidate pool, she warned.
“If you’re looking for somebody that can lead a team, look for people with that team leadership ability [and engineering qualifications]; don’t promote people based on [just] technical abilities and expect them to take over a team.”
Investing in talent
For Engineers Australia Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng, investing and upskilling current employees will also bring the industry one step closer to beating the skills shortage.
“We have incredibly talented engineers and scientists out in the workforce doing incredible things, so we need to nurture those people and provide the systems around them to enable them to excel,” she said.
According to MacMaster, that can begin with offering a supportive graduate program for young engineers that enables them to learn, invest in a company and grow into roles where there are skills shortages.
Investing in graduate employment is one of the federal election proposals Engineers Australia has made to address the engineering skills shortage over the long term.
But to take action in the short term, Seeling Smith observed that the connection between manager and direct report — no matter the position — is critical to get right.
“I see managers twisting themselves up into knots trying to figure out what to do around employee retention, but the research shows that it’s really simple. It’s the connection. It’s the communication and it’s the ability for managers to understand what drives individual staff members.
“The key is sitting down and having conversations that go above and beyond business as usual, and [having] a quick mental health check in.”
Interestingly, in this always-on workforce, what employees value the most is time with their managers. Seeling Smith referenced a study that found that six hours a week is the sweet spot that managers should be spending with their teams.
“Investing six hours a week will get you more engagement, more innovation and all the things employees want,” she said.
MacMaster agrees: “Ultimately most people want to feel like their commitment and work is valued, and they want to feel genuinely supported in their work. Making the time to listen and have authentic conversations with colleagues is critically important for teams and individuals to thrive.”
A time investment that can ultimately contribute to tackling the skills shortage and retaining talent.
Register for Engineers Australia’s upcoming webinar on 20 October, Tackling the graduate engineer shortage – approaches and strategies, to hear more about how industry and the profession can encourage more young people into engineering.