Workforce Planning Tips for Engineering Managers

By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman

For many businesses, the ebb and flow of the number and size of engineering projects makes it difficult for managers to predict future needs for engineering talent.

But to workforce forecasting experts like Brian Wilkerson, managing director of Revolution Advisors LLC, unpredictable projects and workloads make it all the more critical to engage in frequent, rigorous workforce planning exercises.

Workforce Planning

“Yes, it’s hard to predict the timing and impact of business development efforts in a professional services firm,” he says. “But it’s got to be done. Making big bets on talent is more complex in an engineering environment, but it’s also more critical.”

Wilkerson shared his keys to success when it comes to workforce planning in project organizations.

Forecast demand

The first aspect of workforce planning is estimating the demand for resources. At a minimum, engineering managers should touch base with their business development team biweekly to see which projects could hit and when.

“The situation is much more fluid in a project-oriented organization, so forecasts need to be updated frequently,” he adds. “Engineering managers could be caught off-guard by an unexpected deluge of work if they skip this all-important step.”

Consider at least three scenarios: best case, worst case and most likely, to see how the arrival and departure of various projects will impact internal and external demands for critical skills under multiple business scenarios.

Some project organizations create 10 to 20 scenarios depending on the complexity of their business model and project pipeline. Creating numerous scenarios helps engineering managers forecast the demand for skills by looking at probability, uncertainty, timing and the impact of different project portfolio combinations.

Create a skills inventory

Don’t think in terms of people or head count; think in terms of skills when cataloguing your supply of engineering talent.

“It doesn’t matter how many people you assign to a project,” he says. “What matters is how many hours a task will take, the skills and competencies it requires and how that aligns with availability.”

Workforce planning typically focuses on positions, but that’s not appropriate for businesses or departments where work volumes ebb and flow. Engineering managers in project environments need to track skills, not positions. Compare your demand forecast to your inventory to spot potential shortages or excesses of engineering skills before moving to the final step.

Develop a plan and a pool

Talent plans typically include build, buy, or borrow options to fill gaps. Strategies for dealing with short-term spikes in demand due to project changes might include overtime, hiring engineering contractors, redeploying current staff, knowledge transfer and a host of other strategies.

According to Wilkerson, smart engineering managers build a pool of outside people, so they don’t have to start from scratch when they need a rapid infusion of skills. The pool may include retirees, engineering contractors or engineers assigned to other offices.

“Know the cost of carrying an engineer on the bench to see when it’s more cost effective to bring in a contractor,” Wilkerson says. “Being able to define scopes of work and inventory in terms of skills unlocks the flexibility required to assign internal and external resources to both in progress and potential projects.”

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Other information of potential interest

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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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