Engineering Executives Discuss Talent Acquisition Insights

What are engineering executives’ thoughts as they consider the engineering labor market today and in the near future? How are their organizations managing their talent acquisition processes to secure the best candidates? What are the best ways to assess soft skills and cultural fit? How do they know if their hiring processes are effective?

180 Engineering spoke with four engineering executives to learn more. The executives we spoke with included:

  • VPLC – the vice president of connected products at a nearly 100-year-old legacy company in the midst of a digital transformation
  • EDMD – the engineering director at a medical device company
  • VPAS – the vice president of engineering at an aviation services company
  • DQWS – the director of quality & product engineering at a wireless services company

How will the availability of engineering talent impact your talent acquisition strategies today and in the future?

VPLC: Four or five years ago, recruiting was easier in that there were a lot of contractors and consultants coming through temp agencies. For the past year and a half or so, we have had to look hard to find the right candidates because the market is quite tight. The market is especially challenging for software and firmware engineers. You have to rely on relationships to find candidates interested in having a conversation about potentially coming to work for us even though they are happy in their current positions.

Even here, a 98-year-old mechanical-products company in the midst of a transformation, we see engineering talent become more software-based, just because it has to be. As we continue to build out the IoT, I believe there will be a decided shortage of software and firmware engineers.

EDMD: The near term is very rough. Just looking at some of the data, the engineering unemployment rate is at a five-year low. It’s especially difficult to hire more specialized engineers.

It is not as challenging to fill entry-level positions. But, we do struggle to hire more specialized engineers. For instance, injection molding and plastics engineering is a core competency required in our line of business. These people are difficult to find. Even though some of the schools offer specialties in plastic engineering, these schools tend to be in specific regions, and it is not a nationally developed field.

One of our most significant issues is hiring control engineers. As manufacturing operations move increasingly toward automation, there aren’t enough engineers with PLC, coding, or motion control experience. It’s only been within the past five years or so that I’ve seen some universities creating automation engineering and control engineering tracks in addition to the skills they are learning in more traditional engineering tracks.

VPAS: I don’t think there’s necessarily a shortage of engineering talent in general. However, I do believe that different metro areas face different challenges. For instance, we are an aviation company in Chicagoland, and there isn’t a lot of aviation engineering talent in this area.

I also think hiring managers, senior leadership, and human resources need to be more aware of when industry-specific expertise is critical, and when it’s not.

The aviation industry is heavily regulated, and I would never hire someone without aviation regulatory experience to do a compliance job because you have to know very specific FAA regulations inside and out. However, a hardware engineer does not need industry-specific knowledge to design a piece of equipment according to defined specifications and requirements. It is frustrating that we sometimes lose the best candidates because we don’t understand when industry-specific knowledge is critical, and when it’s not.

I will say that I believe the future is bright because there are a lot of smart, hard-working millennial engineers coming up the ranks.

DQWS: We employ a good balance between people who are U.S. citizens and those here on visas. However, there has been a significant tightening within the H-1B visa program, and we have had some situations where people have had to leave the country. This puts us in a squeeze. The engineering labor market is already really tight, and the diminishing lack of access to international talent puts further pressure on us. Our company is growing rapidly, and we will need more engineering staff to continue to grow.

Also, like so many companies, we increasingly need more specialized skills, and the people with these skills can be tough to find.

Given the highly specific skills that are now needed in many cases, are you finding that it takes longer to bring new hires up to speed?

VPLC: I don’t think we are alone in this. Depending on how qualified a new hire is, it now takes three to six months to get them up to speed. This is considerably longer than it used to be because there are so many technologies in the cloud now, and people don’t know them all. There is so much to absorb, understand, and put together. Because the technology in the cloud is changing so rapidly, I’m convinced that you will have to revisit any decision you make today in six to nine months. We are now in a constant state of learning.

How does the interviewing process at your company work?

VPLC: Within our talent acquisition process, interviewing is more of an art than a science. That said, we work to inject discipline into the process, and we plan our interviewing process with the specific position we are hiring for in mind. As the hiring manager, I consult with my peers to determine the best people for the candidate to talk with to get a well-rounded experience for the candidate and for us to acquire the best insights to make a decision.

Each interviewer has a perspective from which we are evaluating the candidate, and we’ll look for specific responses that align with our values. My group is built on people who possess a particular DNA, such as problem-solving ability, collaboration, commitment to being responsive when we have an urgent situation, eagerness to win, and commitment to ongoing learning. We’re all looking for people we believe will fit well within this culture.

I always honestly lay out the challenges of the position and our work, then ask the candidates to assess whether they are up to it. I think you have to be very straightforward about your expectations within the hiring process so that you don’t waste each other’s time.

VPAS: I think a lot of professionals still rely on gut instinct, which is another way of saying that we are making decisions without data. This type of talent acquisition decision-making might serve us well for a while, but you can’t predictably repeat success, which is a problem.

Also, there’s a limited amount of information you can get from an interview, even if it’s a long-form interview. There isn’t much difference between knowing someone for an hour and a half and knowing someone for six hours. Therefore, I tend to broaden my interviews as opposed to making them deeper. For instance, I’d rather have six people interview someone for thirty minutes than have two people interview them for two hours. This committee approach allows us to get several perspectives and has proven to be quite effective.

EDMD: We’ve specifically structured our interviewing process to assess soft skills and cultural fit better. The way that I set up our interviews—from entry-level engineers up to senior principal-level engineers and managers— is that candidates will meet with a diverse cross-section of our engineering team. Everyone on my team understands that they need to be transparent throughout the interviewing process. The intent is to give the candidate an idea of what life here is like.

Being transparent instead of merely giving a sales pitch to try to get that talent onboard has been helpful for us because we can identify some of the things that people want and need from an employer, from a boss, and their peers. We have multiple people ask those same questions throughout the day, document the responses, and see if the answers are similar.

If a candidate has a need that is important to them, and we can’t meet that need, we will recognize it as a potential weakness in our current system while also acknowledging that we might not be the best fit for this candidate.

DQWS: Even when we are hiring engineers, we ask candidates to talk to employees outside the engineering team as part of our talent acquisition process. We are a small company, so candidates can talk to our CEO and our VP of Engineering, possibly our VP of Operations, and maybe members of the sales team. We want the candidate to meet with anyone that person would have interactions with.

We have a set of criteria on which all interviewers grade the candidate so that we can come to a consensus.

We also feel it is important to allow candidates to interact with others, such as some of the younger engineers who are not on the interview team. Gathering some of these people for lunch with the candidate is a great way to give the candidate a feel for the company.

Which candidate qualities are most important to you?

VPLC: I look for candidates who enjoy learning and evolving. People who are interested in continually honing and updating their skills are the folks who are going to do well and won’t become obsolete.

EDMD: A lot of my time is spent on the manufacturing engineering side of our business. We support production operations, and every day there’s an issue—a fire that pops up.

What matters most is how well candidates handle challenges. That’s what’s going to separate successful people from those who struggle. So, during the interview process, we ask difficult questions to try to understand how the candidate would respond to challenges. I don’t expect them to know the answers; instead, I’m looking for how they handle adversity and stress. The defining characteristic that I look for in candidates is grit.

Communication and collaboration skills are also critical. To evaluate these skills, I ask candidates to teach me something. It doesn’t matter what it is, and it doesn’t even have to be related to engineering or medical devices. Just teach me anything. I’ve had people teach me how to tie my shoe, shoot a basketball, and even how to do a dance.

How do you determine how effective your talent acquisition process was?

VPLC: We look at a couple of metrics, including turnover. Are we retaining the people we want to keep? How well and quickly do we move people on when it is not the right fit?

Whenever someone leaves on their own, we take time to reflect on what we could have done differently—why didn’t they fit?

EDMD: The easy answer is by looking at turnover. Given the shortage of engineers, we work to reduce our turnover—we’ve been under the national average, which is good. It tells us we’re doing something right and creating a good culture.

However, turnover is only one metric. You can have low turnover because you have a bunch of mediocre players who don’t have the desire to go any- where. So we also look at the results. It’s challenging to put metrics on engineers because projects vary. But, we try to have some guiding metrics such as completion rates, budget adherence, sticking to timelines, documentation issues, quality of the product, and so forth.

Turnover and performance of the organization—these two metrics combined give us a good picture of how we are doing.

What value do you find in using outside talent acquisition resources?

VPAS: I’ve always thought that for knowledge work, like engineering, you tend to get fresh ideas from outside your industry. Our company’s relationships are mostly within the aviation sector; however, an outside firm specializing in engineering talent acquisition can tap into a network across different sectors.

Engineering jobs are also incredibly specialized today, so it’s tough for internal talent recruiters to understand the nuances of all of the positions needing to be filled. Outside recruiters specialized in engineering understand many of these specialized positions and can bring a lot of value to the process.

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