The Engineer Shortage Is a Problem We All Can Solve

DN Staff

July 13, 2015

4 Min Read
The Engineer Shortage Is a Problem We All Can Solve

Engineers are constantly solving challenging problems. After all, finding smart, workable solutions and then creating ways to implement them efficiently is at the heart of what they do. And, in many ways, their employers are finding themselves in a similar situation, to solve their current engineering talent challenges, anticipate future needs, and prepare for them ahead of time.

Last November, Carl Camden, CEO of Kelly Services, a workforce solutions provider, spoke at the 2014 Original Equipment Suppliers Association (OESA) 16th Annual Outlook Conference. He discussed some of the serious challenges engineering and technical workforce managers face over the next 15 years and laid out some excellent ways to help solve what all of us know is a growing talent supply chain problem. Taking action now could well mean the difference between companies that can successfully recruit, acquire, and retain talent and those that will be left by the side of the road.


Camden often hears business leaders say they're deeply worried about the availability of engineering talent to move their companies forward. He told the OESA crowd, "Usually, at some point in the conversation, these leaders tell me they earnestly believe that their people are their greatest asset." To which he said, "Sorry, that's not true. Your people are really their own people -- and every employee is essentially working for themselves as a 'company of one.'"

What he means is that in today's labor dynamic, where up to half of the talent pool of an organization might not even be on the payroll, people have a choice on whether they engage with the organization or leave whenever they want. This is a new phenomenon, where the "company of one" is part of the talent supply chain (think about the manufacturing supply chain and the many elements that make it effective).

Until relatively recent times, many in the engineering workforce could often count on near-lifetime employment with one firm (automakers, for example), where engineers could tuck themselves in and work on relatively small numbers of assignments and be guaranteed to remain there until retirement.

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That paradigm has shifted dramatically in the last few years. Today, good engineers can have their pick of assignments. Many choose to work as free agents because they then have the opportunity to take jobs that best fit their lives. A project-based career helps them round out their skill sets, take on fresh challenges, upgrade their resumes, and ultimately make themselves much more attractive and valuable to future employers.

At OESA, Camden pointed out 600,000 manufacturing jobs went unfilled last year because managers said they couldn't find qualified talent (OESA's own research shows that three out of four North American automotive suppliers are having trouble finding engineering candidates). The shortage is hindering the progress of industries that are already stretched thin by the strain of frequent new product launches and constant demands for innovation in existing products in order to maintain market superiority or just remain competitive.

It's clear that now is the time to think this problem through and find workable solutions.

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So where does the solution lie? It starts with understanding the mindset of those in today's talent supply chain, followed by adjusting business approaches and hiring practices accordingly. If you're a manager, you'll want to fundamentally understand the workforce dynamic that exists in your organization and how your workforce wants to engage. Then, you'll need to leverage analytics to understand how you can best manage that talent now and as it evolves.

Utilizing what you learn will allow you to manage your talent supply chain to fulfill whatever requirements you see in design and production now and in the future. This means embracing the concept of just-in-time talent acquisition for skill-specific positions.

Your organization will need to provide learning opportunities for your engineering talent, or "upskilling," and be willing to offer flexible work schedules. You may also need to attract a more diverse range of engineering talent, including those that are semi-retired, are balancing work with childrearing, or are simply unable or unwilling to travel to the company each day.

As a workforce solutions leader, Kelly Services has studied the engineering labor shortage issue extensively. There is no questioning that future success, for businesses of all sizes, means being informed and flexible. Managers must understand their companies' role as a user of the talent supply chain, as well as a supplier of it.

Recognizing that knowledge work is mobile and portable is important, and as growing numbers of businesses aren't dependent on brick-and-mortar locations, the same clearly can be said for free-agent talent who don't have to depend on companies located near them.

Feel free to comment below as well as send me a note with your thoughts at [email protected]. After all, we're in this together, and if we put our minds to it and go to work, we'll solve this problem, too.

Tim McAward is vice president and engineering product leader for Kelly Services, a leading provider of workforce solutions headquartered in Troy, Mich.

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