How to Engineer a Just-in-Time Talent Pool

By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman

Imagine having a group of experienced engineers at the ready. A collection of qualified professionals with diverse skills who are willing to start work at a moment’s notice.

It’s not a fantasy. Project-oriented organizations across the country are stealing a page from manufacturing’s playbook. Their leaders are thinking outside the box to create a pool of flexible, just-in-time talent.

Group of engineers

Developing a just-in-time talent inventory is similar to a manufacturer having suppliers who can provide stock on short notice to immediately meet new demands. Savvy companies are accelerating their response time and increasing project capacity by stocking up on internal and external talent for ready access.

Here’s a look at some of the strategies companies are using to create a flexible, just-in-time pool of professional talent.

Rethink your organizational structure

Instead of having people switch jobs to match a shifting need for talent, some companies are breaking down large projects into smaller, skill-based components. The strategy transforms standard, inflexible jobs into a series of flexible short-term assignments according to Accenture, making it easier for another worker to step in, inject a short burst of specialized expertise, and move on.

Furthermore, defining work in terms of skills instead of roles is advantageous for project-based organizations because it enables accurate talent forecasting, rigorous inventory management and the effective deployment and utilization of specialized resources.

Still others are going in the opposite direction and creating broader roles for full-time staff. Having wide-ranging positions and generic job titles gives managers the freedom to allocate workers to various projects based on their skills.

For instance, the U.S. Navy was able to deploy skills more fluidly by reducing and consolidating the number of jobs in favor of broader, more generic job descriptions, according to Accenture’s report. A sailor with a job of submarine electronics specialist might now be deemed an “electronics technician” who could work on an aircraft carrier, a submarine, or an on-shore location as needed.

Realign full-time staff

Project-based companies are hiring floating, full-time employees in order to create a just-in-time workforce. The concept isn’t revolutionary, it’s been utilized by hospitals for years. Nurses with diverse specialties are hired into a float pool, allowing administrators to align staffing levels with changes in patient census levels in various units.

Microsoft is moving toward a just-in-time model by allowing its core engineers to moonlight on special projects inside the company (source). The engineers get a chance to learn new skills and earn extra income, while the stretch assignments enhance their technical capabilities. Google lets employees spend 20 percent of their time on interesting projects. These strategies not only improve response time, they boost creative innovation, productivity and employee satisfaction.

Other firms are engaging in “employee swapping.”  One office may “loan” engineers to another office in the same firm as projects arise.

Augment your pool with external talent

Most engineering firms utilize external talent to balance supply and demand. However, just-in-time proponents don’t wait until a need occurs to initiate a search. They proactively create a pool of screened engineers to handle overages and fill critical skill gaps. The inventory typically includes contractors and freelancers, consultants, retirees and former employees who are willing to work part-time.

Most importantly, the firms appoint a “talent supply chain manager.” He or she is responsible for forecasting near-term needs for engineering talent, maintaining a comprehensive skills inventory and spearheading the recruitment and selection of engineering professionals for the supplemental pool.

The manager also fosters a sense of community and belonging with external engineers through frequent communications, activities and educational opportunities. Many use a contact management tool or system to stay in touch.

Involving free agents in occasional strategy discussions and firm events makes them feel valued and begets fresh ideas, increased loyalty and extra effort. After all, a just-in-time workforce is a highly valuable resource in this new age of business uncertainty.

Other information of potential interest

Engineering Solutions to Today’s Talent Shortage

What to Look for in Contractor Engineering Resumes

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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