As technologies change, companies that rely on those technologies to bring new and innovative products to market need to stay ahead of their competitors by recruiting and retaining the best engineering talent they can find. But where do they find those people and how do they make them part of the company?
To get the answers to these and other questions regarding engineering talent, Machine Design assembled a group of engineering leaders for some of the top OEMs and suppliers:
Steve DiMarco is president of Tolomatic Inc., Hamel, Minn., a leading supplier of electrical linear actuators and electric linear motion control and pneumatic actuators and cylinders.
Paul Hazlit is director of engineering at Servometer, Cedar Grove, N.J., a company that designs and manufactures metal bellows, bellows assemblies, flexible shaft couplings, spring contacts, and electroforms.
Mark Wallace is vice president and general manager of American Field Operation for Keysight Technologies Inc., Santa Rosa, Calif., a global technology and market leader whose electronic measurement instruments, systems, software, and services are used in designing, developing, manufacturing, installing, deploying, and operating electronic equipment.
Where does your company find technically educated and trained people to hire as engineers and technicians?
Steve DiMarco: We find experienced technical people to hire through online job postings and recruiters. We also do college recruiting for entry-level people.
Mark Wallace: Hiring highly capable, skilled, innovative, and motivated people is fundamental to our company’s success. The ultimate responsibility for acquiring talent rests with each hiring manager, and they use an infrastructure and support model managed by our global staffing team. We find talent from a variety of sources including recent college grads, job postings in a variety of sources, and social media. And one of our best sources of talent is referrals from our own employees.
Paul Hazlit: Our company produces a niche product that requires looking for a very specific type of engineer. But we have been successful with recruitment ads in newspapers, using both digital and print platforms. We have also used agencies in the past and we have relied upon referrals.
Are you looking to change how you recruit new technical talent? If so, what changes would you make?
Mark Wallace: As market needs shift, such as we’re seeing in software, the skill sets our new hires need will also shift. The market for engineers with skills in software development, computer programming, and RF microwave is highly competitive. The skill sets we seek and the total rewards package we offer are regularly reviewed to ensure we are competitive and able to attract the top talent.
Paul Hazlit: We do not see any need to change our recruitment methodology at this time. New Jersey has some great engineering schools, and the surrounding states have always been an engineering-rich environment. We are lucky to have employees who stay with the company for a long time. But when it’s necessary to recruit again, we will use our tried and true methods. If they don’t yield the best candidates, we will adjust our methods accordingly.
Steve DiMarco: We have started using social media sites to prospect for qualified people and we expect to do more of that in the future.
Do you find that recent bachelor-degree graduates from engineering colleges are up to the task of contributing to your company’s efforts? If not, what do they seem to lack?
Mark Wallace: We establish relationships with many universities, providing them with technology and knowledge through our University Relations Programs. We also maintain strong intern and campus hiring programs. These programs help us prepare graduates for employment at our company. Overall, I’m very impressed with the talent level and capability we have been recruiting from our universities.
Paul Hazlit: Yes, the newly graduated engineers are up to the tasks we put before them. But for us it depends on many factors. Most engineering students are never exposed to the devices we make in their entire college career – metal bellows and electroforms. We don’t expect them to be familiar with bellows technology, but a bachelor-degree graduate needs to know and understand engineering principles, and think critically. They also need to be able to solve real-world problems.
Some schools focus more on problem-solving disciplines than others, so this is a factor, too. Also, many schools offer students a co-op, which lets them gain valuable exposure to the industry and acclimate to the corporate culture. This is helpful. I have also read a number of articles discussing how industry is working with some colleges to train engineering students to meet the needs of industry. If a school is not collaborating with industry, they should.
Generally speaking, I have noticed a shift during the course of my career in how students approach problem solving. In the past, technical advertisements would focus on the capabilities of a product. Engineers at the time would read these and envision potential uses in their applications. Now, more ads focus on applications, so engineers can see a use similar to what they might need and adapt it.
The engineers we look for need to create solutions out of real-word mechanical problems. They need a strong ability to solve problems. It’s great to be able to build off similar solutions, but they also need to be able to create original solutions. A lot of products we design for don’t exist yet, except as a concept in an engineer’s or designer’s imagination.
Steve DiMarco: Regardless of degrees, our new hires need time to learn our products and how we do business. Recent graduates we have hired have strong basic engineering skills, but they still need time on the job before they can contribute to their full potential.
Are undergrads from most colleges the same or do some colleges do a better job preparing students for the real world of engineering. Can you give an example?
Steve DiMarco: We have excellent engineering schools and technical colleges in Minnesota. All of these schools give students a solid foundation of skills. We just need more young people to choose engineering.
Mark Wallace: We work with talented students at a number of colleges around the world. In the past year we hired graduates from over 200 institutions globally. We are familiar with programs at schools with which we have developed relationships. In the U.S., this includes Cal Poly SLO, University of California Davis, Colorado State, and Georgia Tech. Globally, we hire from Beijing University; University of Technology, Malaysia; University of Science, Malaysia; Sheffield Hallam University in the UK; and the University of Malaga in Spain, among others.
Paul Hazlit: From our perspective, some colleges do a better job than others at preparing engineers for the real world. For example, we have seen graduate engineers draw a blank when asked about free body diagrams. When dealing with forces applied to mechanical systems, even an intuitive understanding of such a diagram is critical.
Our products are custom designed in collaboration with our customers. The products could be considered as analog solutions in a digital world. So for us, strong problem-solving skills and real-world mechanical aptitude are a must.
Are recent grads from master’s and PhD engineering programs noticeably more educated or capable than those with just bachelor degrees?
Paul Hazlit: You would hope that they were more educated – that’s the point of an advanced degree. They should bring a broader scope of knowledge and education to the table. And master’s and PhD students should have a greater ability to bring this knowledge to bear. However, they should still be able to move from abstract and theoretical concepts to practical application concepts.
A lot depends on the master’s or PhD student’s focus, aptitude, and background. This is why co-ops, internships, and real-life experience helps determine what graduates can offer an organization, and thus their perceived value to the organization.
Mark Wallace: For our R&D and development engineering roles, advanced degrees are often mandatory to secure the right depth of experience and capability. However, I’ve seen the gap between undergrad and graduate engineering students begin to narrow as more advanced concepts are taught earlier in the curriculum and then refined in invaluable intern and co-op opportunities.
Steve DiMarco: We hire people with a wide range of educational backgrounds and experience. For much of the work we do, we need people who are highly mechanically inclined. This skill set doesn’t necessarily correlate with more education. I believe advanced degrees can give an engineer a quicker start out of the gate. But in engineering, hands-on experience with design projects is critical to the learning process.
Do you have a formal training program for newly hired engineers? Can you briefly describe it? If you do not have such a program, can you explain why it is unneeded?
Mark Wallace: Our onboarding program helps new hires assimilate quickly into our environment. It includes several courses, development opportunities, and partnerships. Each of our businesses develops customized training programs that include elements such as job shadowing, mentoring, and job rotation, depending on the business needs and the new hire’s background.
Paul Hazlit: We have a quasi-formal program for training newly hired engineers. As we are fortunate to have little turnover among design engineers, it is still evolving. Once we find the individual with the right skills and aptitude, they get an intensive indoctrination in our products and design software. Then we get them involved with actual design solutions, working with our experienced design engineers. The capabilities of our primary product can be broken down into simple key concepts. Our design teams’ skill is taking these simple concepts and combining them to answer complex design applications. This skill can’t be taught; it needs to be developed through experience. This is why we look for a specific type of individual when we are hiring.
Steve DiMarco: We don’t have a formal training program for new hires. We get people involved in projects as soon as possible and coach them through an on-the-job experiential learning process. We believe this is the fastest way to bring people up to speed and get them contributing as soon as possible.
Are there any technical areas or engineering disciplines in which it is difficult to find talented people? What are those areas and disciplines? Any theory on why it is hard to find people in these areas?
Mark Wallace: There’s no question that software engineers, computer engineers, computer programmers, and specialty focus positions such as RF microwave engineers are in high demand. In this day of extensive networking tools and social media, finding top talent is not as difficult as creating a compelling value proposition that attracts that talent.
Paul Hazlit: We are a fairly small company. Our design focus is electromechanical components, so all our engineers are mechanical engineers with good problem-solving and mechanical aptitude. We have been fortunate to find such individuals. I think this is more of a problem for larger companies with more diverse design and manufacturing platforms.
Steve DiMarco: We find that most technical roles at our company take time to fill as these people are in high demand. The industrial automation field has been growing quickly since the recession and there aren’t enough qualified people in the U.S. right now to fill all of the available positions.