Managing Engineers, Recruiting

How to Hire & Retain Top Engineering Talent: 5 Perspectives

June 20, 2014

We are big believers in the wisdom of crowds, so we talked to 5 human resource professionals actively involved in hiring for their perspective on how to hire and retain top engineering talent.

Interviewed are:

  1. Jeremy Bennett, Vice President of the Engineering Practice for Addison Group
  2. Craig Fouts, Sales Director for Aerospace & Defense at Yoh
  3. Stephanie Fedoroff, CPA, SPHR, Director of Human Resources at Pennoni Associates
  4. Tom Jonjak CSP, Director of Staffing at bb7
  5. Michelle Brooks, Director of Recruitment & HR, BeneFACT – Engineers

Despite their diverse industry representation, we think you’ll find there are some common themes and consensus among our interviewees.

What measures have you taken to attract and retain engineers?

“To attract top engineers, I want to know the basic human need that is not being met. It’s not enough to know that they are being underpaid. I need to know why they feel that way. I ask what’s important to them and hear what they are saying.

What are their ambitions?
What are their expectations from an employer?
Values?
How would they like to be utilized within the organization?

Retaining engineers is simply a continuation of the hiring discussion. So many successful companies are terrible places to work, and the breakdown is usually a lack of communication.

Paying engineers at market value, investing in their training, and managing their career progression are key as well.”

-Jeremy Bennett (Addison Group)

“We make sure everyone knows that their efforts do make a difference and that their contributions matter to both the success of projects, and ultimately the company’s achievements.”

– Craig Fouts (Yoh)

“I am constantly thinking of better ways to improve communication since that is always a major concern. I am also looking at trying to find the right balance between a rich benefit program and the salary needs of employees. Employees at various stages of their career and their lives have differing needs. A younger person is less interested in a rich benefit package and has to pay off student loans, they want to buy a home, start a family and they need to start saving for retirement as soon as they enter the work world. An older employee who has put their kids through college may be more interested in a rich benefit program.”

– Stephanie Fedoroff (Pennoni)

Do you find it easier to hire or retain top engineers?

“My experience is that most companies will be good or bad at both. There are a small group of companies who are able to retain engineers. These organizations typically don’t have a problem hiring them either. Competent hiring and retention is very intentional.

The opposite is also true for companies who have a hard time retaining engineers. Those companies usually have systemic flaws with no quick fix.”

– Jeremy Bennett (Addison Group)

“It is easier to retain top talent.

There is strong competition in the marketplace for top engineers, especially mid-career engineers. Once companies hire what they deem ‘top engineers’ they must provide an engaging and rewarding work environment to retain the talent. There are simply too many opportunities for top engineers to seek employment elsewhere if they are not happy.

– Craig Fouts (Yoh)

“Hiring top talent is always difficult, no matter which career field you are discussing. Having a competitive benefit package and a competitive salary certainly helps but it’s not the ‘be all and end all’.

Company reputation is important.

At Pennoni Associates, we are employee-owned, which is what attracted me to the company in the first place. These are more than words; they go directly to the heart of who we are as an organization. I’m proud to be an employee-owner and everything I do reflects that. I think that being employee-owned helps with recruitment and retention.”

– Stephanie Fedoroff (Pennoni)

“It’s easier to retain (for what we do) because once engineers are here… they don’t really want to go. We are a consulting firm [so projects change] and our 25-year people are still our go-to engineers on projects.

As long as you keep them involved, occupied, and a major part of the design team – they’re happy. Our engineers just want to go to work and have cool things to work on.”

– Tom Jonjak (bb7)

How do you keep your top producers happy?

“Top producers should be managed and compensated differently than their peers and shown the respect they deserve. They should be more autonomous and should be given the opportunity to stretch while still being held accountable.

Creating an environment where every employee is treated equally is a disaster for a top producer.”

– Jeremy Bennett (Addison Group)

“The difficulty in hiring top producers is finding them. Once a company knows they have a top producer they go to great lengths to keep them on board.

Most top producers have lofty career aspirations, so to keep them engaged and happy there must be opportunity to participate in various projects, and there must be a track for career advancement.

 The goal is to have many top producers, so the difficulty arises when there are not enough opportunities to advance the careers of various top producers. In addition, when there are limited opportunities to take on new projects a company will have a hard time keeping top performers from becoming complacent and searching for new careers.”

– Craig Fouts (Yoh)

“Communicate as much as possible, which is a two-way street. Showing respect, being approachable, being flexible to personal needs, acknowledging and rewarding their contributions, and having a benefit package that takes care of them and their families.”

– Stephanie Fedoroff (Pennoni)

“Keep them involved with where things are coming from – we can get them involved in client meetings and hearing what their parts are. They can say ‘oh have you ever thought about that?’ and contribute to the business development process. They love that.

And empowering them [in their careers]. Asking, ‘do you want to be in a leadership/management pipeline, do you want to work on proposals, client meetings, do you want to project manage? Or do you enjoy engineering and want to continue bettering yourself and learning your craft?’ Giving them options.”

– Tom Jonjak (bb7)

“Hiring and retaining top engineers is never easy. A big challenge in retaining top engineering talent is keeping them engaged in the work, specifically with projects they consider interesting and fun. We’re lucky that our engineers are focused on the SR&ED program, so their job involves going to onsite client meetings and learning about different R&D projects.

Almost every engineer we hire claims this is their favourite part of the job.”

– Michelle Brooks (BeneFact)

What do you think are the biggest threats to engineer happiness and retention?

The largest threat to happiness and retention is always respect.

Lack of respect reveals itself in a number of areas: micro-management, compensation and promotions based on tenure instead of merit, lack of technical resources, no communication on career progression, and mundane repetitive tasks.”

-Jeremy Bennett (Addison Group)

“Top threats to maintaining happy engineers are:

  • not enough challenging projects that introduce them to new technologies or methodologies,
  • lack of career advancement, and
  • not being heard during engineering design and development stages.

If a company can effectively communicate the how’s and why’s of a project, and allow for top engineers to be a part of design, development, and problem resolution, the top engineers will have more buy in on the projects which then leads to retention.”

– Craig Fouts (Yoh)

“I’d say primarily it’s being approached by competition. Employees who haven’t worked anywhere else, who came to us directly from college, are curious about what else is out there. That’s understandable and unavoidable. In some ways that’s why I’d rather hire someone with some experience. They have an idea of how other companies work and have something to compare us to.

In terms of happiness, poor communication is a big problem, real or perceived, and it’s something that we have to work on every day. Lack of career direction for those who don’t fit the typical career trajectory, employee burnout when companies are understaffed, and possibly benefits and/or salary becoming noncompetitive.”

– Stephanie Fedoroff (Pennoni)

“We can’t forget that… we hired these engineers to fit a certain piece of the puzzle, but that that puzzle is always changing.

It’s easy to say ‘oh, he’s our best Mechanical Engineer’ and we forget to ask, ‘is it really where he wants to stay?’. We have all the core utilities still but things have to change or they get stale. Including for our engineers.”

 – Tom Jonjak (bb7)


“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” ― Bruce Lee

It’s your turn to chime in.

We’d love to hear your advice. What do you or your organization do to attract and retain top-shelf engineering talent?

Drop a comment below or continue the conversation with us on Twitter (@HireEngineers), Facebook (HireEngineers) or LinkedIn (EngineerJobs.com).

Photo Credit: Éole