An effective strategy to develop and retain young engineering professionals is important

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By Christine Hill and Jessica Marra, Cole Engineering

The backbone of all consulting engineering firms is a strong technical and design staff that has the expertise and experience necessary to problem solve. It wasn’t long ago that firms hired talented young staff and developed their skills and expertise over many years. But, changes in our industry have resulted in a loss of talented younger staff to the public and other sectors.

Some have left for work/life balance, while others have sought different opportunities. In addition, regular career and employment changes or job-hopping are now the norm with many workers, both young and older. Recent surveys (Globe and Mail, 2014) have identified that 51% of workers in Canada now stay in a role for less than two years, and that only 30% of workers in Canada stay in the same job for four years or more. The result is increased pressure on consulting firms to develop and maintain their key work forces, by providing career development opportunities, training and mentoring.

Multi-faceted programs that combine mentoring, formal training and exposure to a variety of business and practice areas can engage and encourage young graduates to continue as consulting engineers. These can include:

  • Exposure to different practice areas, enabling new graduates to find their passion within our industry;
  • Internal and external mentoring programs to provide technical, business and career advice;
  • Formal internal and external training programs that are individualized and build on the skills and attributes of the individual. These programs can also be tailored to meet the needs of individual engineers, identified through Professional Engineers Ontario’s PEAK program which requires ongoing training to maintain a level of knowledge and skill commensurate with safeguarding public interest.

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Like many other companies within the industry, Cole Engineering (COLE) is facing challenges related to demographic changes. Knowledge transfer from retiring employees to younger project team members, as well as meeting the life/work balance that so many of our younger employees are looking for, are two of the most pressing challenges.

We have recognized the importance of developing younger engineers and have implemented comprehensive actions to support this. Following significant changes in our executive team and the development of a new Strategic Plan, COLE leadership engaged younger engineers. A new Young Professionals Group (YPG) was formed and broad consultation with younger employees was completed during the Strategic Plan development.

To gain input from younger employees, an anonymous survey was completed by 60% of the YPG. The survey asked YPG members to identify the most important issues in the workplace. The four most popular issues were opportunities for advancement, competitive compensation and benefits, promotion of life/work balance, and a strong office community and culture.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Issues of importance and dissatisfaction levels.

YPs also ranked their level of workplace satisfaction as part of the survey. Figure 1 shows the ranked issues of importance and also shows the percentage of staff dissatisfied with these issues.

On a more specific level, YPs also provided information on what gave them job satisfaction on a day-to-day basis. It was found that camaraderie with coworkers, followed by working on well-managed projects, were ranked as the most important factors. Based on level of dissatisfaction rankings, working on well-managed projects was identified as being a priority for areas of improvement. (See Figure 2)

Figure 2
Figure 2: Job satisfaction rankings.

Finally, YPs were asked to select three aspects of a manager/supervisor they saw as most important. Overwhelmingly, these were capabilities for mentoring, empowering workers and providing clear direction. COLE executives carefully reviewed the results and decided to implement the recommendations throughout the company.

As a result, the Strategic Plan addresses four key areas associated with the retention and development of its young professionals, including robust recruitment of new graduates, providing opportunities for social and team building, and professional development and training. Since the implementation of the Strategic Plan, achievements have been immediate and dramatic.

Graduate recruitment

The new graduate recruitment process was broadened and now includes young professionals. Together with Human Resources, our young engineers now attend career fairs, local association events and participate in student design competitions for universities and associations. COLE’s YPs judged final year design projects at the University of Guelph. COLE has been recognized for its efforts and won the University of Guelph’s Co-op Employer of the Year award.

We have recognized that not all new graduates have a clear idea of the type of work they would like to be doing in our industry. As a result, we launched a rotation program where new graduates rotate between four different technical groups during the first year of their employment. With the knowledge gained over their first year, these employees are better equipped to select the career direction and technical area they are best suited for.

Social and team building

The importance of team building has been expanded with more technical, professional and social events geared to all employees, including YPs. Weekly events, held during and after work hours encourage team building amongst employees. Some of our more popular social events have included snack and chat events, social hours and barbecue events. COLE is also a strong supporter of Water for People and has held well-attended Water for People charity events.

In 2017, we held our first company-wide conference and encouraged YPGs to present interesting technical projects to the company. “Collaboration” was about sharing ideas and experience amongst all staff and recognizing their accomplishments through a variety of awards. As part of the conference, outside speakers representing our clients, suppliers and contractors, were engaged to provide their knowledge and experience to the company.

Professional development and training

COLE is investing in its younger workers by providing training for key skills, encouraging involvement in industry associations, and providing comprehensive on-the-job training in a wide variety of technical areas. Regular training sessions on key business skills, such as business development, communications, presentation skills, proposal writing and networking, have been held.

In addition, YPs are encouraged to give presentations at conferences. Organized field trips have also been held to expose YPs to other business areas and demonstrate key aspects of projects, from planning and design through implementation.

Summary

Consulting firms depend on the knowledge and skills of our staff to meet our client commitments and to grow our businesses. We must meet the challenge of an increasingly mobile workforce by training, developing and retaining our staffs through robust multi-faceted programs that combine mentoring, formal training and exposure to a variety of business areas.

Christine Hill, P.Eng., is Business Development Leader and Jessica Marra, EIT, is Co-Chair of the Young Professionals Group, Cole Engineering. This article appears in ES&E’s December 2017 Issue.

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