Recruiting

7 Things Engineers Want Recruiters and Employers to Know

August 27, 2014

The research uncovered in our 2014 Engineer Hiring Trends report pointed to a considerable gap between what engineers want and what recruiters and employers think they want.

Since “74% of surveyed human resource professionals stated that engineers are the most challenging position to fill” and articles about how difficult it is to hire them are published nearly every day, we decided to explore the issue further.

We asked engineers what, specifically, they wish recruiters and potential employers knew about hiring them. 

Engineers’ Advice to Recruiters

1 – Understand Who You’re Recruiting.

Even if you can’t become a highly specialized niche recruiter for a specific occupation or industry – you can, and should, have a working knowledge of what the occupation actually does. Know terms, key job functions – or at least commit to taking the extra step and research resume items you don’t understand. Before talking to the candidate.

The consequences of not knowing can be… embarrassing.

reddit engineering

Top voted comment from a Reddit thread asking engineers about their experience with recruiters and headhunters.

The engineers we interviewed weren’t quite as harsh-tongued about their experience with recruiters, but pointed to the same problem.

“The problem with engineering is that recruiters, human resource professionals, and especially many managers do not truly know the field. I am a software and systems engineer with decades of experience and have worked and talked with many recruiters and hiring managers. The best luck I’ve had are older technical managers who know the game.”

– Sarah Weinberger, Software and Systems engineer, CEO of Butterflyvista Corporation

Other interviewees put it even more plainly:

“Engineers should be the easiest occupation to hire but it really takes an engineer to understand one.”

– Todd Rhoad, MSEE, MBA, Managing Director of Bt Consulting

So if you don’t have the benefit of being engineer, it really behooves you to learn how to think like one.

Engineers pride themselves on being plain-spoken, pragmatic problem solvers (say that three times fast). Which is why it’s important that you…

2 – Don’t BS Them.

“Engineers don’t like to deal with a lot of BS… they are smart people and want to be treated that way. They are … very practical and appreciate a straightforward negotiation. Just tell them what you are offering and ask them if they can deal with it.”

– Todd Rhoad, MSEE, MBA, Managing Director of Bt Consulting

The best estimate available is that US engineers, regardless of industry, are at a lower-than 2% unemployment rate. With a small available talent pool and a great deal of competition vying for it – a reputation of being a straight-shooting, knowledgeable recruiter will go a long way to win referral business.

3 – Tools Matter. Know (and Communicate) what Engineers Can Expect.

If you were tasked with building a house, would you choose a) a hammer or b) a pneumatic 21-degree framing nailer?

For engineers, the tools they are going to be given to do the job are just as important. A good recruiter can rapidly differentiate themselves from the competition if they can speak intelligently about the quality of tools the job candidate will get to work with. Employers can separate from the pack by having the kinds of tools that will help engineers do their jobs better, faster, or ideally, both.

And the same goes for the kinds of people an engineer will have an opportunity to problem solve with – both inside and outside their organization.

“In addition to the job itself, and opportunities for learning, there are two key areas that I would consider as very important to an engineer during a job search. I don’t think recruiters learn enough about these areas in order to properly convey the environment to the prospect.

The first is the availability of quality tools, software, data, and resources. This is particularly true with info-sec and forensics, as you want to be able to use quality tools and systems to carry out your work/research/analysis. You also want access to good data sets to correlate your analysis. The second is the flexibility to do outside research and collaborate with colleagues in other organizations that share a common interest.”

– Andre’ DiMino, Senior Network Security Engineer at The George Washington University

Bottom line: the greater their access to cutting edge tools and collaboration, the better your competitive advantage to hire engineering talent. Know how to talk about this.

4 – Exact Match Experience isn’t as Important as You Think It Is.

Most job descriptions (and, subsequently, ads) read like a long list of check-in-the-box requirements. But if you judge the quality of your engineering applicant by how many “x’s” they check off, you may be artificially limiting your talent pool.

“Too often organizations and recruiters seek engineers with the exact experience they need but this isn’t totally necessary. Engineers are like young children hyped up on a case of highly caffeinated Monster drinks. Give them a problem and they’ll work on it until they figure it out. They have the patience and drive to meet the challenge. Engineers are passionate about their work.”

– Todd Rhoad, MSEE, MBA, Managing Director of Bt Consulting

5 – Senior and Entry-Level Engineers are Different. Don’t Assess them the Same Way.

Hand-in-hand with the above point, many employers (and recruiters) use a standard core competencies list to assess all engineering talent, regardless of experience level, or refer back to college GPA or specific class grades long past the expiration date on their relevance.

And in the case of senior engineers, even if they may not be up to date on Erlang (for example) – their history of acquiring similar language competencies more than suggests they’ll be able to pick it up if they have to.

“Knowing terminology says nothing. I learned a valuable lesson from my electrical engineering advisor and professor at UCLA. I asked him how to do something that he asked [us to do]. His response was that the job of an engineer is to learn how to figure things out because he will not always be there.

My professor was totally right and the lesson learned has helped me in both my career and life. I wish that recruiters and employers would go beyond college-level examinations and get into the questions that will identify a real engineer.”

– Sarah Weinberger, Software and Systems engineer, CEO of Butterflyvista Corporation

For mid-career and senior engineers, knowing how to assess their ability to learn and relearn quickly may be much more valuable information than their work history. And it may also help you, as a recruiter, spot the diamond in the rough.

Engineers’ Advice specifically to Employers

6 – Quality of Life is More Important than Money.

In the survey that spawned this post, “an overwhelming majority (91 percent) of engineers responded that work/life balance was very important or somewhat important when considering a new job offer – edging out compensation as the highest-rated factor.” This was reiterated several times among our interviewees.

“A high quality of life that allows for a balanced home/work environment is so much more important than most employers I encounter usually take into account. A high salary is nice but I would much rather work on cool projects that I am passionate about and have the freedom to set my own schedule.

– Sean Kane, Senior Software & Android Engineer, LawyerReviews.com

But engineers’ advice here is two-pronged: they want to be fairly compensated, but how they work and what they work on is going to play a much larger role in the job they choose than how much you pay them. (Conversely, the same is also true of whether they’ll stay.)

“Engineers do seek a fair salary; that is, a salary in line with the average value for the location and experience/education level. Engineers are not driven by money but like to see an increase in salary every year to feel appreciated.

They are driven by work-life balance and novelty.

Engineers know that organizations will want to work them very hard, creating long work days almost every day of the week. For the most part, engineers will meet that demand. However, the younger generations of engineers are choosing to balance a heavy workload with a little play time.”

– Todd Rhoad, MSEE, MBA, Managing Director of Bt Consulting

7 – Individual Agency Will Win Greater Talent than Money.

This next point, which we will include in it’s entirety, is especially important for tech companies and startups.

“Work/life balance is definitely a big factor, but especially for engineers aiming for small companies and startups I think that individual agency is more important.

The number one question for many developers is this: how much are your decisions going to be valued in the company?

In a bad situation, prioritization happens purely top-down, and you end up spending half the time bending to arbitrary whims of higher-ups. There’s no dialog between business, design and development. Even with a good salary, a job where you can’t speak up loses its appeal quickly.

Developers love to have as much agency as possible – they like to be able to pick their own tools, take out chunks of time to work on open-source code, and have a say in company decisions. The days of waterfall workflows are over, and companies as well as developers are trying to find a balance between one cohesive vision from the top and developer freedom. I’ve run into a couple companies that advertise “hack weeks” or “hack days” at certain intervals as a job perk – open, unprioritized time specifically to give developers freedom to build what they want.

Github and Dropbox have famously handed developers a lot of room to build out their own ideas, and it’s definitely a big reason why so many talented developers swarm to those companies. Just as 20% time at Google drew in a lot of their talent, agency is still something that developers regard highly.”

– Olex Ponomarenko, Software Engineer at Thinkful

Conclusion

Engineers are fundamentally different than other types of talent you may be recruiting. They are motivated by cool problems to solve. They value work/life balance. They really want you to understand what they do. But recruiting them isn’t rocket science.

Understand that most engineers change jobs because they want more exciting projects, better recognition, or greater opportunity than they believe they can get from their current employer.

If you follow the rules above and make adjustments to your current recruiting practice, you’ll notice a huge difference in the kinds of engineers that want to work with or for you. More importantly, you’ll be able to convert candidates into employees.

What other advice do you have about recruiting engineers?

6 Comments
Scott Cochrane says:

excellent article that is as applicable to hiring managers as it is to recruiters. If you pay attention to the likes and needs of engineers that are covered in this article, you can apply this to retaining talent as well as attracting talent.

Amanda Orson says:

Glad you liked the article, Scott!

And yes, listening to the likes and needs of talent is so critical to your (mutual) success. It struck us, during the research phase, how universally applicable their desires were across a wide spectrum of engineering disciplines.

Neil Barker says:

Amanda,

Thank you for the article and great list for recruiters to keep in mind. Most of my HR experience has been working with engineers in the construction industry. I can honestly say I appreciate #2 Don’t BS Them. The positive flip-side that I appreciated from my former engineer colleagues is that they never BS’ed me. I really liked the pragmatic and straight forward way many engineers communicated.

Amanda Orson says:

Thank you for the feedback, Neil.

As I was reading through some of the feedback we got from engineers there were a few lightbulb moments – #2 was certainly one. He hit the nail on the head and identified a pretty universal sentiment for many engineers. And it’s the point we’ve been getting the most feedback about on social media as well.

Again, thanks for the comment and your feedback. If there’s anything you’d like to add you felt wasn’t covered – we’re all ears, too.

Donna Peterson says:

Hello Amanda,
Thank you so much for writing this article. As a senior level software engineer I really appreciate this one. I think every recruiter who is hiring engineers should read this.

The first statement: Know who you are hiring – is very important. I get so frustrated talking to recruiters who really don’t know anything about the job or what the different requirements mean. I have a bachelors degree in computer science from one of the top universities in the US and a recruiter will ask, how much Java experience do you have? I say about 3 months…but I have 8 years in C and C++…and I wrote my own scripting language for WINCE at a large software company so I could automate the testing…(thus it would be easy to use Java to program in). I tell them that I pick up things very quickly and that is why I was able to be a successful consultant…but they just look at the requirement of 1 year minimum of Java and pass.

Most recruiters don’t even bother to call back or email any decision, even when I send an email inquiry. That is the worst! I make a note of these recruiters and stay clear.

I wonder if companies realize how important a knowledgable recruiter really is? I also want to work for a boss/manager who understand what I do as well. If I find my manager is not technical I know the job is not a fit for me.

Thank you again for your article and I hope it is well read.

Kim Keener says:

Great article. I learned to recruit engineers by cutting my teeth in the staffing industry hiring skilled labor. Knowing the differences between the mechanical, electrical, computer disciplines helped me gain their respect. Proudest moment – when that grizzled engineering manager said “you ain’t so dumb for a girl.” Mind you it was years ago but if you don’t know don’t be afraid to learn from them.