In the media

How turning bugs into benefits can help tackle recruitment problems

By Julianne Antrobus, Sally Bibb

E&T Magazine

30 September 2022

This article was first published in E&T Magazine

Engineering employers known for being interested in people based on their individual strengths will find it easier to attract and retain workers, despite current skills shortages.

Results of the IET’s most recent annual skills survey, published in December 2021, suggest that almost half (49 per cent) of UK firms are experiencing problems because of the shortage of skilled people in the market. Aside from fighting it out with the competition by offering higher pay, and more bells and whistles, what can employers do to become genuinely more attractive to the scarce pool of talent with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills?

The longer-term solution is to create a talent pipeline to attract young people to the sector and train them. But this will take time. In the shorter term, there are practical steps employers can take quickly to attract the best people.

To attract and retain workers in this new world, organisations have to offer something genuinely different, that appeals to the type of people they want. That means becoming an employer that is more attractive to people than those they have previously encountered.

This requires a fundamental rethink of how people progress and develop in their careers in the sector. Most organisations work on the notion that everyone can become ‘well rounded’. This leads to the kind of situation we’ve all seen, where people who are great engineers are promoted to become team leaders when they don’t have the strengths to be successful in that role, nor do they particularly want to do the job.

The answer is to shift to the more realistic and motivating idea that people grow most and perform best in their areas of strength. It’s the outcomes of the job that matters. Thinking this way turns each person’s individuality from a bug into a benefit.

To achieve this, you must first get managers to understand their strengths – what they’re naturally good at and what motivates them. In other words, what kind of person they are. Then you teach them how to have conversations with their people about their strengths, how they make their best contribution and how to manage the weaknesses that matter.

We saw this when we worked with the management team at a successful, but dyed-in-the-wool, pump manufacturer. They liked the idea of looking at strengths of the team on the basis that no one was well rounded, but that collectively they probably had what was needed. The managers said focusing on strengths made them more confident in having performance conversations and telling people why they were – or weren’t – being promoted. The shift in mindset for them was realising it’s not that some people are deficient in some way, it’s about identifying where each person best fits.

Companies looking to fill gaps in science, engineering and technology roles need to recognise that everyone has potential, not just a chosen few. A strengths-based approach helps to find where each person fits best and enables employers to replace rigid vertical career ladders with clusters of roles in which the same leading strengths are key to success.

For example, a marine engineering company that introduced ‘Strengths Job Families’ with eight job clusters, with those roles that shared the same leading strengths to make the job holder successful in the same cluster, lost fewer people. Employees who had leading strengths in analysis and problem solving could move between digital, IT and engineering functions rather than staying in their functional silos, enabling people to widen their career opportunities within one organisation.

This is the approach that one nuclear operator is adopting in appointing team leaders who are the right fit. They know how important a good team leader is to team engagement and performance. They used the strengths approach to their team leader assessment and the feedback has been that those involved found it a refreshing and fair process and the route to a high-performance culture.

There is clear evidence that success lies in knowing what strengths are needed in your workforce, now and in the future. Applying a strengths approach to selection and recruitment is still relatively rare so it will make you stand out among a sea of employers who sound samey. Without this knowledge of what you need, attracting the right people becomes a hit and miss affair.

Employers in engineering and technology businesses who know exactly what kind of person is a great fit for a job will be able to appeal to the people they need to achieve their mission. This might include people who have left the workforce but might be tempted back into the sector, again helping to fill the skills gap in the sector.

Rolls-Royce’s new clean energy spin-off, Rolls-Royce Small Modular Reactors, has been designed to operate from the start as a strengths -based organisation. “That’s the route to attracting the calibre of people we need, keeping them engaged and achieving the productivity and performance that are key to our success,” says the company’s talent and HR director, Adam Ellis.

CEOs in the engineering sector say workforce shortages are among the top three issues they worry most about. The conventional response is to try to do the same things better, but that just means you end up racing to stay ahead of the competition. To truly crack the recruitment and retention challenge you need to change what you do and stand out for being different.

Employers who become known for being interested in, and managing people based on what they’re great at, are the ones that get noticed and attract the skilled workers who are critical to their success.

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