Train and Retain

Recruitment is fast becoming the watchword of engineering companies when tackling the skills gap. However, while renewed effort is being pushed into attracting new staff, businesses are perhaps failing to fix problems a little closer to home. In this article, we explore growing problems with retention, and ask what companies can do to keep their staff engaged and motivated.

We see a constant stream of coverage about the skills gap and how to solve it. How do we attract more graduates? How do we encourage more teenagers to study STEM subjects? How do we convince parents that engineering is the right career for their child?

All are important questions, but all fail to consider a fundamental part of the problem: keeping staff in the industry once they arrive. There is far too little said about the problem of retention. We can’t just focus on solving recruitment problems:  if we can’t keep employees once we get them, we will never solve the skills gap.

A job for life

I’ve been working at the same company for more than 30 years, but I’m certain that 30 years from now there will be far fewer employees who are able to say that. A job for life doesn’t fit into today’s working culture as it used to. There is an expectation that employees will move around to maximise their opportunities, accommodate changes to their personal lives and find new challenges. In many cases, especially with employees just starting their careers, these new challenges lie outside engineering. 

So, what can we do as businesses to persuade employees that their company, and the engineering industry, is where they want to be?

For me, the key lies in finding answers for each individual, rather than trying to find all-encompassing solutions. There is so much scope within engineering for inspiration, but we have to understand that what might motivate one person may not register with another. We need to give everyone the chance to feel motivated and inspired, to develop their careers and to avoid stagnating. 

Diversity of opportunity

Our first priority, then, is to create a diversity of opportunity within our businesses.

One reason employees leave a company is because they’re fed up doing what they’re doing – they haven’t been given the chance to either progress or to learn new things. Providing more options gives a second chance to those who perhaps feel they’ve taken a wrong step, and stops those who want advancement from having to decide between leaving or waiting for a promotion.  

Diversity of opportunity is especially important for junior employees and is one of the things I believe we’ve got right at Air Products. I’m a sponsor on our graduate programme, which involves three challenging, year-long assignments. This setup allows graduates to broaden their horizons, learn about different areas of the business and develop their skill set. 

Being a sponsor is a role which I take very seriously. Each individual is unique in their focus, their priorities, and in what inspires them. Our job as sponsors is to provide a solid, welcoming platform for graduates and to act as a guide, helping them find a path which is most beneficial to them whilst meeting the needs of the company.

The approach seems to be working. Air Products was recently ranked by UK graduate employment website The JobCrowd as the top engineering and manufacturing company for graduates – a ranking based solely on employee feedback.

A pro-active approach is one which should be applied higher up the business, too. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking someone is happy in their work and then not take steps to help them diversify. Just because someone has been in a certain role or sector for years doesn’t mean they’ll want to stay there. Don’t make assumptions about what people want their next steps to be. Managers need to be proactive in helping their staff progress and in helping them find tasks which motivate them, be it something they’re good at or something new and interesting.

Ownership

As touched on above, keeping staff motivated is vital to retention. To achieve this with junior members of staff, it’s also important to avoid the mantra of “watch and learn”, keeping them on the periphery of tasks. Make them feel that they are making a genuine contribution – that they’re providing ideas and innovations rather than just doing what they’re told. If you give graduates responsibility, in my experience, they will take it seriously and step up. Allow them a chance to build a real sense of ownership in their work and they’ll feel the pride that goes along with it.

Training

It’s also important to back up opportunities for progression with the training needed to develop new skills. On the one hand this is about professional training – with chemical engineering providing a fine example. One of the most important goals for junior chemical engineers is getting Chartered – something which requires a breadth of experience and knowledge. It goes without saying that if we don’t make an effort to provide this knowledge, graduates will go somewhere that does.

However, we should not neglect the value of softer skills training. Management courses and the like might not always be specifically relevant to day-to-day tasks, but offering these opportunities will show employees that they will be supported with appropriate training through the lifetime of their career. 

Work-life balance

Another issue which should be at the forefront of our minds is flexible working. Having a work-life balance is becoming more and more important to staff, and this needs to be recognised. We need to be understanding of the family commitments employees have outside of the workplace and make it easier for them to juggle these commitments. Being in a job which doesn’t allow you to balance the demands of work and home is enough for many people to start looking elsewhere, so flexibility, where possible, benefits everyone.

Fixing the leaky bucket

Recruitment is important, of course it is, but it’s just a starting point. To use an analogy, just pouring more water into a leaking bucket isn’t going to fill it.
Taking the time to get to know employees will incentivise them to stick around. People want to feel that they have opportunities to grow and progress, that they can live their lives around their work, and that their employers understand their goals and priorities.

It’s not rocket science. It doesn’t need all the bells and whistles of new tech or an overhaul of how the business is run. It just takes a bit of effort to get to know individuals. If we do that, we can stop the leak.

Roberta Norris is Onsites Business Manager UKI, Air Products

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