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The Ties that Bind: Keep Valuable Engineers from Flying the Coop

By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman

If you’re not worried about losing key members of your engineering staff, perhaps you should be. According to a recent survey of nearly 700 engineers, 61 percent may look for new jobs in 2014, and 40 percent say they’re actively seeking new positions.

Surprisingly, engineers with a wandering eye don’t necessarily want a bigger paycheck; they’re often looking for a new challenge.

retain contract engineers

“Engineers are problem-solving animals, so they tend to get restless when they feel under-challenged or bored,” says Leigh Branham, managing principal of Keeping the People, Inc. and a frequent adviser to engineering firms.

With the economy continuing to improve, there’s no time to lose. Here’s the blueprint for retaining highly valuable engineering professionals in 2014 and beyond.

Sponsor Professional Growth

Mike Vaigl has been able to retain his engineering staff since becoming engineering manager at Standby Screw Machine Products Company several years ago, even though the small company lacks promotional opportunities. How? By offering engineers continuous learning and mentoring opportunities, as well as the chance to grow intellectually and professionally.

“I’m willing to share my knowledge and I’m completely transparent about what we’re doing as a company and as an engineering team, Vaigl said. “Giving engineers a chance to grow has boosted morale and engagement.”

“Firms that have a lot of routine engineering work need to make a conscious effort to offer professional growth,” Branham says. “Keep things fresh by offering engineers the opportunity to rotate into challenging projects and acquire new skills. Otherwise, they will feel bored and stuck.”

Shake Up the Culture

Abandoning a traditional hierarchical approach in favor of a leaner, flatter structure has been a welcome change for Vaigl’s engineering staff. He not only favors an inclusive management style; when the company runs 24/7 during peak season, he takes a turn working nights and weekends.

He’s also made work easier by investing in new computer monitors and software. Most importantly, he’s given his engineers a voice and a chance to discuss what’s working and what’s not.

“We used to be a lot more dictatorial,” he says. “Now, we take a people-centric, bottom up approach to communication and problem solving.”

Offer Frequent Feedback

Engineering managers are often guilty of withholding criticism and dumping it on the engineer during their annual review, Branham notes.

“That’s a real demotivator,” he says. “And it encourages people to polish up their resumes and hit the market.”

Instead, learn how to have difficult conversations and provide engineers with on-going feedback, good or bad, throughout the year. The closer the feedback occurs to the event, the more meaningful it will be.

Check in Often and Say Thanks

Deep down, we all need recognition. Yet, all too often, the only times engineers interact with their manager is when something goes wrong.

Don’t underestimate the power of a simple thank you. It just takes a few seconds to compliment an engineer on a job well done or acknowledge him or her for going the extra mile.

Another powerful retention tool is the stay interview. Unlike exit interviews, which amount to an autopsy of why an employee is leaving, stay interviews are done proactively to gauge an engineer’s mindset and intellectual needs. It’s the perfect time to ask if they’re feeling challenged and head-off restlessness by offering stretch assignments or mentors.

Branham adds that a stay interview clearly communicates an engineer’s value to the company.

“If you conduct stay interviews every quarter to see how your engineers are feeling about things, you’ll end up doing a lot less exit interviews,” he says. “And that would be a very, very good thing.”

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Other information of potential interest

What Engineers Really Want from Employers

Chemistry Lesson: Using Science to Select Culturally Compatible Contractors

Five Myths about Co-Employment

Insightful Interviews: Favorite Questions Asked by Engineering Managers

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