Whether we believe the recession is over or not, staying competitive is an increasing challenge. There is near-universal agreement that part of the solution is excellent product, but recruiting the talented engineers needed to do this is increasingly difficult. Is it just a matter of supply and demand or are there deeper challenges? What are the solutions? To find out, we spoke to Chester Boothe of Jonathan Lee Recruitment, one of the automotive industry’s leading HR resourcing specialists.

j-a: Are we right to identify engineering recruitment as a significant problem?

CB: Yes you are. The need to have people who can quickly bring competitive product to market is now more acute than ever and most companies are finding that some aspect of their development is being slowed by a lack of engineers. A recent report sponsored by the UK Government found that 31 percent of British companies now look oversees for suitably qualified people. The nature of the problem is different in other regions; for example in China there is a strong supply of newly-qualified engineers but insufficient senior people.

j-a: What is causing this shortage?

CB: It’s a range of factors with subtle differences in each region. In many Western countries there are two issues. First, not enough really good people are attracted into the profession. In the USA in 2011, there were 50 new MBAs and 18 new law school graduates for every one new engineer. In the UK, the majority of practicing engineers are already over 40. Second, post-recession, engineers are less willing to change jobs. The market dynamic has changed and employers have generally not shifted their recruitment strategies to accommodate the new conditions.

The shortage is compounded by the changing skills requirements. The challenge for educators is not so much to produce more engineers, but to produce more really good engineers with the skills and aptitudes that businesses need. As well as top-quality people, this means less compartmentalised education – for example, breaking down the barriers that produce Mechanical Engineers and Electrical engineers. Today, most of our clients need an increasing proportion of their people to have a mix of expertise – Mechatronics engineers – and to complement their technical skills with good team-working and other aptitudes that will help them progress complex programmes quickly.

j-a: Is the shortage more pronounced in any particular field?

CB: Mainly in the fast-growing fields of hybrid & electric powertrains, power electronics and control electronics. But it isn’t just technical skills; the right mindset is equally important. Vehicle systems are not just increasingly highly-integrated, they also have an increasingly synergistic relationship with other systems. Not everyone needs to have collaborative skills or programme management expertise, but there are not enough people who do.

j-a: In what ways has the market dynamic changed?

CB: Post-recession, many engineers are choosing to exchange career progression for security. That cuts down the mobility of labour and makes it even harder to attract the right people. More job offers were turned down in 2011 than in any previous year, despite many of those offers being accompanied by very attractive pay packages. The best candidates now have multiple offers, so factors beyond pay must be brought into play to attract them. With 2013 looking like another challenging year for the car industry, I see this issue becoming even more pronounced.

j-a: How can recruiters compete more effectively for the best people?

CB: It isn’t just about money. It’s about being clever in your approach. We talked earlier about the change in attitudes and this is one of the key things that recruiters must address.

In 2011, we surveyed more than 1,000 engineers to find out which factors were most important in their choice of employer. It may come as a relief to many employers that salary trailed the list in fifth position. The most important finding was that job security had moved up considerably from previous years and is now ranked ‘extremely important’ by 72% of respondents. Understanding this change in how the candidates evaluate an opportunity can help employers compete more effectively.

Because of this, the psychological contract between employer and candidate is now critical and should be developed at every touch point in the developing relationship. Mutual trust is essential. Using this approach, the best employers will be able to further differentiate themselves, acquiring significant commercial advantage through their improved access to (and retention of) the very best people.

j-a: Are you saying that HR departments have not adapted fast enough?

CB: Some have, but many have not. For example, too many good candidates are lost by companies taking too long in the recruitment process and not “selling” their company to candidates until the offer stage, if at all. Companies are also losing good candidates by employing inappropriate filters such as a requirement for particular qualifications. Look for transferable skills coupled with bright, enthusiastic, adaptable talent. When you have made a decision, move quickly, remembering that the best candidates may have several offers

I’m also very keen on the potential of semi-retired senior engineers. Through the recession, many highly-experienced and very capable people were released with generous early retirement packages, often because they were expensive and did not have sufficient expertise in the ‘new’ technologies. What they do have is tremendous management expertise, often with highly-honed skills in programme management, mentoring and general business skills such as managing effective meetings. My view is that there is a considerable opportunity to use these people on a consultancy basis not primarily as engineers, but as mentors who can accelerate the careers of junior colleagues. Through one-to-one coaching, young engineers can be helped to acquire new skills more quickly, to collaborate more effectively, to think more deeply and to take more responsibility, all within the safety net of regular senior-level validation of their work that there may not be time to deliver internally.

j-a: Finally, what is your view on 2013? Are there any indications of a slow-down in engineering recruitment?

CB: That’s really two questions. Lots of companies went through substantial recruitment programmes immediately after the recession, taking the opportunity to re-align their skills sets. Those programmes are now largely complete and I don’t see anything like that happening again in Europe in the near future. However, if you take out these spikes, there is still a very strong demand for good engineers particularly in the UK, where there is more vehicle development than most people see, and in specialist growth areas such as electronics and hybrid and electric powertrains. I’m sure my colleagues will be just as busy solving these problems in 2013 as we have been in 2012.