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Engineering solutions to the skills shortage

Written by David Edwards, August 2008

When it comes to attracting great employees, it starts with being a great employer. Last week in Melbourne, members of Engineering Australia gathered with HR experts to discuss strategies to ease continued business pressures caused by a dire shortage of engineering skills.

Some 250 members of the Victorian Chapter of Engineering Australia gathered last Thursday to listen and gain insight from the information provided by a panel of Human Resource experts.

Although the Australian Human Resource Institute (AHRI) has correctly projected a shortfall of over 18,000 engineers, engineering led organisations are uniquely positioned to overcome current challenges.

By nature, Engineers are very good at developing solutions designed to work well and last a long time. Isolating problems, setting benchmarks, establishing goals and measuring outcomes are all great practices that are common to engineering project management. Applied to the HR function, the same discipline helps ensure the continuity of the business.

The full scope of the HR function is not well understood by business leaders meaning best practice lags behind other areas of operation, such as IT. Overcoming this will be important for companies that want to compete for the best and the brightest.

IT systems are clearly understood as business critical because robust systems protect the continuity of a business. As a result, a lot of time and money is committed every year to protecting against failure in this area. Based on this accepted commercial wisdom, investing in programs that ensure the continuity of the human element simply makes good sense.

The HR function is often perceived as simply being about filling job vacancies. This is just one of the greatest mistakes any business can make because it means companies fail to implement the kind of retention strategies that sustain the long-term engagement of skilled people.

If a business does not manage its people effectively, the result is not only poor employee engagement and high turnover but also the organisations reputation as an employer suffers. The widespread adoption of e-social networks makes an employer's reputation general knowledge and a poor reputation makes it even harder to attract new staff.

Other commonly held misconceptions include the widespread belief that offering the highest salary attracts the highest performers. Statistical evidence from The Australian Talent Conference 2008 shows remuneration is typically low on the list for prospective employees.

High performers are attracted to high performing environments, therefore the profile and reputation of the company or organisational brand is very important. The next consideration is the full worth of the job, including the scope of responsibility, HR policies, the nature of the management and the work/life balance on offer. The prospect of continued professional development is also taken into account and below that is remuneration.

Understanding these four factors can help businesses better plan their approaches to recruiting. Considering the whole 'employee value proposition' and not just remuneration will help smaller businesses that worry about their ability to compete on salary and can be especially valuable to attracting up and coming talent in the industry.

While Gen Y has traditionally been identifi ed as less likely to stay in one job for any length of time, new evidence suggests that top performers actually prefer to gain a breadth of experience within a single company rather than flitting from one job to the next.

This means those businesses that offer 'on the job diversity' will benefit from attracting and retaining the best and brightest new talent in the field.

Engineering skills are so scarce in some quarters, those with the talent are well aware of their strength in the negotiations. Candidates of all ages will refuse roles that do not suit their broader life agenda, so it pays to understand what is involved in becoming an Employer of Choice. Australia is losing an increasing amount of engineering talent to other parts of the world, therefore it is also beneficial to have a strategy for tapping into global markets, especially when seeking executive experience.

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