Why great engineers are hard to find and even harder to land (Part 1 of 2)

by Greg Harper
Senior Vice President at Charles Aris Inc.

I’ve been working in the retained search industry for the better part of a decade. My primary focus has been locating great engineering talent for my clients, and over the course of that time I’ve seen developing trends which make finding and recruiting top engineers incredibly challenging. The bad news is that these trends are here to stay and, as in any situation where demand outpaces supply, there will be winners and losers. The good news? Strong companies have found ways to overcome those obstacles to ensure that they come out as winners – and you can do the same.

Let’s start with the challenges and end with the solution:

Lack of supply

We’re talking Economics 101 – supply and demand. There simply aren’t enough qualified engineers in the marketplace. If you’re charged with hiring and developing engineering talent for your organization, I’d advise you to embrace this development because the supply-and-demand imbalance won’t go away anytime soon.

There are many factors contributing to the lack of supply. The rate at which the U.S. education system is graduating engineers is alarmingly low. As a society, we’re not doing enough to encourage young people to pursue degrees in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Having a foundation in these academic disciplines is not only critical to success in an engineering or operations career, but studies show that individuals with strong STEM backgrounds are more successful in occupations outside of engineering and operations as well. In fact, many of the senior executives whom Charles Aris places in strategy, marketing and business management have engineering undergraduate degrees. Deloitte Consulting recently revealed that while U.S. residents consider manufacturing among the most important domestic industries for maintaining a strong national economy, they also rank manufacturing low as a career choice: Only 37 percent of respondents in the 2015 study indicated they would encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career.

The good news is that educational leaders in the United States appear to have recognized the gap and are doing their part to provide more opportunities for STEM-based learning. Even private institutions such as Sylvan Learning are getting on board by launching STEM-based programs for young people. Sylvan, a leading provider of supplemental tutoring and instruction for K-12 students, recently launched Sylvan EDGE, which incorporates STEM-based teaching into camps for robotics, coding and video-game design. We need students to see the fun in STEM fields, and programs like these will help to inspire youth in the United States to embrace the benefits of “doing the math.”

Growing demand

Compounding the lack of supply of quality engineers is the fact that the United States has experienced a growth in demand, largely driven by the revitalization of the nation’s domestic manufacturing footprint. Study after study has indicated that cost factors are no longer the key consideration for many companies when deciding where to locate their manufacturing facilities. Instead, the leading factors driving companies to manufacture in the United States include a growing desire to produce goods in close proximity to customers in order to respond quickly and efficiently to customer needs, all while derisking the supply chain.

Additionally, thanks to the boom in U.S. oil and gas, the country now possesses an abundance of inexpensive energy. As a result, the United States is an increasingly attractive location for manufacturers which are energy intensive or which can use natural gas as a primary input. We’re effectively shifting from a manufacturing culture of offshoring (the past 10 years) to one of inshoring (the next 10 years).

The final piece of the supply-and-demand dilemma is the ongoing retirement of baby boomers. Many engineers who delayed retirement and whose investment portfolios have now recovered from the 2008-09 crash are retiring in massive numbers. Couple this with the portion of the population which has reached retirement age and we’re talking millions who are leaving the workforce. Over the next decade, 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be backfilled, and experts predict that as many as 2 million of those jobs will go unfilled because of skill gaps. The average skilled worker in the United States is 56 years old. By 2030, 79 million people will have retired while only 41 million new workers will enter the workforce. Talk about imbalance! Most vacated jobs will require training and expertise which young people simply aren’t receiving.