Staff retention is a problem for today

4 mins read

By Sunil Rathod, Lead Process Engineer, Air Products

As we tackle a growing skills shortage, a simple question must be answered: how can we ensure the next generation of engineers will still want to be here in 15 years’ time?

The answer must lie with a multi-faceted approach that considers and targets individuals at a variety of different stages – from young people considering their future career to those already well on their way.For the former, we have an opportunity to instil a foundation of security and faith in our industry that will see them through the uncertainty of school, university and the early years of their careers.This is otherwise the time we’re most likely to lose talented individuals – when they aren’t convinced that they’re travelling down the right path, or they can’t see the long-term opportunity ahead.

Like many industries, engineering is struggling to find ways to address the problem.According to a survey of UK engineering firms released last year, companies see this as one of the biggest issues the sector faces, and collectively we are funnelling extensive time and resource into finding a solution.Indeed, back in 2018, STEM Learning found that the shortage was costing businesses a staggering £1.5bn a year in recruitment, training, temporary staffing and the salary inflation required to retain the sector’s most talented employees.

The breakdown of these costs is, in itself, evidence that simply ‘getting people through the door’ is not enough. We need a longer-term strategy to address both recruitment and retention within the engineering industry.

Today, it’s not enough to just offer a job or an apprenticeship.I believe that to truly motivate young people we have to be able to provide them with a future vision and roadmap for the years ahead – from STEM subject choices at A-Level and university, through apprenticeships and graduate schemes and onto a long-term, stable career path.Schools and universities can give someone the knowledge needed to start out in a job, but to motivate them to take it and turn it into a career is something else entirely.Enthusiasm goes hand in hand with seeing opportunity, and if we don’t communicate this opportunity clearly, we will continue to struggle to recruit and retain staff who stay for the long term and become our future leaders.

This rings even truer for those young people overcoming adversity to achieve their goals, and who perhaps feel the pressure of making the right decisions more acutely.Through my work with the Social Mobility Foundation, I mentor young people whose families earn below a certain threshold and who are often aiming to be the first in their families to go to university.They are making a considerable financial investment in their education by taking on thousands of pounds worth of student loans, and they need to see how the career they choose will help them progress and make the money to justify that decision.The watchword here is ‘stability’ – something which is incredibly difficult for them to see at that stage of their decision-making process.This is especially pertinent for those students who are taking the biggest financial leap. A course and eventual career choice which provides job security and satisfaction is at the top of their wish list.Engineering can offer this – and it’s a message we should be shouting from the rooftops at every possible opportunity.

Needless to say, this has to be balanced with hard work but showing a potential path to success will, in itself, keep those starting out motivated to work hard and fulfil their full potential. In so doing, they benefit both themselves and our industry.

Getting this message across while students are at a young enough age is essential if they are going to take the academic path required by many of the careers in our industry.By the time A-Level subjects have been chosen, students are already on a path to places on relevant university courses, and subsequently in graduate jobs.Engaging with students during their GSCEs and extolling the virtues of an engineering career will increase the numbers of students coming through the ranks and fill the ever-growing number of gaps in the industry.

But securing this talent is only half the job. Once they are in our industry, how can we best ensure they want to stay?

Of course, a roadmap for long-term stability and success is a promising start. But the job of retaining talent also falls, at least in part, to the attitudes and behaviours of senior leadership teams, whether they realise it or not.Apprentices and graduates need to naturally be able to look at people they work with and see something to aspire to, both in terms of success and how they treat those around them.This helps to reinforce the roadmap which convinced them to join the sector in the first place. All of us need role models, and finding them at work can inspire commitment and dedication to both an individual company, and the industry as a whole.

Some naturally relish the opportunity to play an active part in the progression of junior staff, but even those who are more reserved should know they are always on show in the same way, and that their attitudes will influence the progression of others, or lack of it. This is serious food for thought and we all need to be accountable.

I’ve been lucky enough to work around the world, and in a variety of engineering roles.I know the diversity of opportunity this industry has to offer to young people whatever their aims – whether they want to be hands-on or theoretical, commercial or technical, a part of all elements of a project or a master of one.We can show them the success of those before them, the journey they can take to create a career and the chances they will have to try something new.We know these opportunities exist – but if we don’t showcase them properly to the next generation, we’re failing to highlight the real rewards of a career in our industry.