Grow your own

Published:  09 October, 2015

Attracting the skilled professionals required to support business transformation, especially when it comes to automation, can be challenging. Richard Heaton, lead consultant for automation and robotics from expert engineering and manufacturing consultancy Jonathan Lee Recruitment, explains what businesses can do to ensure they have the right people in the right roles at the right time.

The pressure on companies to remain competitive is a key driver for change in any organisation, but implementing change must be managed carefully if it isn’t to impact on the ambitions of the business. This is especially true where industrial automation is concerned: a smooth transition is paramount to avoid business disruption and a damaging impact on productivity, performance and the long-term prospects of an organisation.

As a result of the skills shortage in the automation and robotics sector, many of the businesses looking to diversify production or increase automation risk coming unstuck as they struggle to recruit the skilled personnel they need to support their growth. Engineering technicians remain in particularly high demand and short supply: over half of those surveyed by the Engineering Employer Federation (EEF)* said they are currently struggling to recruit for skilled trade and technician positions.

The good news is that there are a number of ways businesses can ensure they have the right team in place to effectively achieve their goals.

Considering transferable skills

It will come as no surprise, given the challenges in the marketplace that employers need to adapt their recruitment strategies to make the most of the talent available.

Many employers find that in reality their utopian candidate rarely exists, so are increasingly seeing the benefit of considering candidates with transferable skill-sets. While most job specifications would include a long list that starts with ‘sector experience’ and includes several specialist skills and qualifications relevant to the given role, employers facing a talent shortfall need to reconsider which they deem as essential skills and which fall into the ‘nice to have’ category.

Often it can be quicker and more efficient for an employer to hire a technical specialist from a different industry and provide additional training in-house than to delay progress by waiting for the elusive perfect candidate. Transferable, non-technical skills such as communication, flexibility, organisation or problem solving are valuable attributes that shouldn’t be ignored - an engineer’s technical ability is only part of what makes them a good engineer.

Creative deployment

There are a range of approaches that an organisation can take to upskill its workforce and meet the changing demands of the business.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ job role that can answer the needs of the organisation as it undergoes transformation. Through our own interims division, we have found the appointment of interim specialists is becoming an increasingly popular way of bringing a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ to a problem, implementing new processes, or delivering a capital investment project, such as specifying and managing the installation of new equipment or production lines. By setting clear KPIs for these specialists a framework can also be put in place to build the skills of the wider team.

Horizon scanning

Taking a look at a business’s long-term skill-set requirement or plan also plays an important role in guiding recruitment policy. Without a true picture of the strengths and weaknesses of a company’s talent pool and an awareness of how this could change over time, a business is in danger of recruiting for the wrong role and being too reactive in its approach. Replacing like for like isn’t always the right decision for the long-term needs of the business. Putting a process in place to audit the existing knowledge and skills base should always be the first step for identifying the long-term personnel needs of the business.

An audit will also help to determine if missing skills can be filled by training and developing existing staff. Investing in employees enables a workforce to stay agile and flexible to the organisation’s needs. Involving staff in this process will also aid staff retention as employees are motivated and engaged in the future direction of the company.

By investing in the development of existing members of the workforce, many in the sector are successfully transitioning traditionally skilled employees into automation roles; transforming maintenance engineers into PLC programmers and design engineers into automation experts.

Offering a career path, not a job

The demand for highly skilled engineers is great news for candidates who have their pick of roles. However, with demand outstripping supply, employers must work harder than ever to capture their attention and send the right recruitment messages.

Many high calibre candidates will want to know about the long-term prospects that a role offers. It is not uncommon for such candidates to be put off by even the slightest hint of short-term thinking from an employer. Therefore, in developing a job description, companies must ensure that they effectively paint a picture of the prospective career path for the candidate. Exploration of long-term opportunities aligned to the development plan of the business should also form a central part of the interview.

Selling your organisation

Engineering and manufacturing firms need to think carefully about how they are perceived externally and what information they should share with prospective employees to convince them to join their organisation. This is especially important for SMEs who do not enjoy the same level of brand awareness in the recruitment marketplace as major global firms.

Many candidates will look on a company’s website or LinkedIn page to assess its position in the market and evaluate whether it is a strong and thriving business. It is therefore vital that businesses work to ensure that they are well represented online and not discourage candidates through a lack of information or confused messaging.

An organisation should also consider partnering with a reputable recruitment consultancy that specialises in their sector. If selected carefully then a recruitment partner’s understanding of the industry, business, position and candidate market will allow them to effectively take on the role of marketing an organisation. When executed professionally and honestly, a consultancy can successfully highlight the attractive opportunities available to talented candidates.

Thinking globally

Finally, the international nature of the engineering labour market gives employers access to a global pool of potential candidates, many of them highly skilled. Those who haven’t already, should consider applying for a sponsor licence that will enable a company to recruit from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) in circumstances where there are no available candidates.

With an estimated shortfall of 55,000 engineers in the UK**, the industry is facing a crisis. Those working hard to reverse the trend of a declining talent pool by investing in talent of the future should be applauded. Meanwhile, those with existing, immediate needs need to adopt a more open-minded approach to training and recruitment, upskilling and evolving their existing teams and looking outside of their sector for motivated candidates with transferable skills that will thrive with the right training and support.


**Engineering UK,

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