The engineering industry knows a lot about the war for talent: firms have been competing not only among themselves but with other industries, to get the people they need for at least the last 20 years, says Trent Jones, Human Resources Lead in the APAC region for ABB Electrification, a division of global industrial engineering company ABB Engineering.
What is it like attracting and retaining talent, especially young talent, in a huge industrial firm that has global operations but at the same time isn't as well-known as its consumer-focused counterparts? Trent shared some insights with People Matters.
What does the talent landscape in the engineering industry look like? Could you share some of the challenges in finding talent of the quality and numbers you need?
The talent landscape for the engineering industry is highly competitive and this has been the case for the last couple of decades. As a global industrial engineering company, we are competing for the same talent as tech giants. The global pandemic has only made the situation more challenging. In pre-COVID times, we had the option of sourcing the right talent from across the globe, especially larger markets such as the US, EU, and India. Key talent from these markets could be moved to other countries where support is required. With borders closed, it is no longer as easy to transplant talent which poses a challenge especially for small markets which have an even smaller pool of engineering talent.
Another gap we always have to address is the preference candidates may have for specific types of work. For example, Computer and Aeronautical engineering is currently a hot industry with many future opportunities. In comparison, other engineering fields such as mechanical engineering and electrical engineering – which are equally important and valuable – may not see the same level of popularity in applications.
The current huge imbalance in the demand and supply for tech talent means that firms are now having to compete outside their industry for talent. What strategies are working for you?
Looking for people outside typical industries has long been part of our human resource strategy. We focus on finding synergies that different fields might have, looking for adaptable skill sets, and aim to train and set our talent up for success in their roles. For example, some of our designers may be chemical engineers by training.
Opening our talent pool has been doubly important after the pandemic. Industry knowledge and exposure continue to be highly sought-after skills in talent, but we also make sure to consider the bigger picture in forming holistic and strong teams. We value people with complementing skill sets and highly encourage cross-industry and cross-business function learning.
We have a formal early talent program which allows fresh graduates to rotate not only between different departments but also between business arms such as Electrification, Motion, Process Automation, Robotics & Discrete Automation and between functions such as Sales & Marketing, Product Management, System Engineering and Research & Development. This initiative gives our new talents access to mentorships from world-class professionals, offering them ample opportunities to grow their business acumen and network. This program sets the stage for career growth both within or outside of ABB, where many have proceeded to become top talents within our business or to take up equally amazing roles in consulting or management outside of the organisation. Such initiatives help us to build stronger brand awareness and word of mouth outside of just electrical engineering, as these young talents that undergo our program share their experience with their own networks.
Another key aspect we consider in our strategy is being agile and moving from being reactive to proactive in workforce planning.
We can no longer get away with thinking about what skills we need for tomorrow – it’s now about having a plan for next three years or even five years down the road. If you’re only thinking about 6-12 months down the road today, you’re probably already late to the party.
Often, firms are able to attract good quality talent but then face difficulty holding onto them, especially fresh graduates. What works to stop this churn?
What we see with fresh graduates is that they are always looking for the next opportunity. They want work that is purposeful and fulfilling – so it’s a battle of being agile to come up with opportunities quick enough for this group. We focus on matching our talent with the right managers who can train, nurture and mentor them.
I remember a young female graduate who was introduced to our business through the internal program. She was bright, motivated, and inquisitive. We matched her with a particular manager who had a real passion for nurturing young talent and giving them excellent opportunities to learn more about the business. Under his mentorship, the fresh graduate was quickly assigned to a very large service project where she had to work cross-functionally across many different divisions: sales, project management, service, and systems teams. This made some a little nervous as this project was with one of our biggest clients at the time. However, the graduate rose to the challenge and really did a great job. Over a period of around 5 years, she has grown with the company and held some great positions from graduate engineer to technical consultant, full control systems engineer, and then on to lead the digital and product marketing team for a large business unit.
In an earlier conversation, you mentioned challenges with the business functions specifically, such as finance and marketing. Why do you think it's particularly hard to attract people to these roles?
As an industrial company, ABB operates in a space that’s a little more niche due to our B2B nature. Some fresh graduates may naturally feel more attracted to big consumer or household names.
To address this obstacle we face in attracting talents from these functions, we developed a creative concept where our internships run more similarly to project teams in school. For example, a marketing student would be paired with an engineering student, and they would be presented with a business problem to solve such as a technical product that the team needs to market to a certain country. This change has been met with great feedback from employees and students alike, underlining the importance of thinking outside the box for HR initiatives to connect and better resonate with bright young talents.
What do you see as the main attraction and retention factors for younger talent today? Have their expectations changed over the years (give or take the pandemic)?
Firstly, it’s important to start the relationship on the right note, with authenticity as its core. Instead of embellishing a role to get them through the door, expectations must be aligned for the hire to be sustainable. If we sell an opportunity and don’t deliver on it, the emotional contract and trust with these talents is instantly broken.
The younger generation also looks for flexibility, purpose, and meaningful work. They strive for the next challenge and want opportunities to work in different areas. On this end, the pandemic has pushed the boundaries for old-school industrial thinking and kickstarted change.
It’s now no longer about how long you’re seated in the office in front of your boss, but about the output and value each individual brings. We’ve had to embrace technology and the new way of things.
This flexibility and empowerment have been well-received by young talent, but we also know that we can’t compromise on the human element and having face time with team members. For employees first starting out in their careers, the shared experiences and exposures are harder to create online. To ensure our interns and fresh graduates do not feel isolated in this period, we have formalised engagement activities such as creating “virtual” meeting rooms for employees to mingle and chat. We also organised wellness activities through the form of business update webinars, online training and virtual team bonding exercises to provide a holistic experience for our young talent.
Could you share a bit about how ABB develops its pipeline of talent to meet business goals?
Balancing talent development and allocating resources with business goals and the bottom line may not be easy, but we know how critical it is to create a sustainable organisation that is set for future growth and success.
When it comes to talent development, everyone’s requirements can be different.
We try to focus on a number of key skills or knowledge base areas where we can evidence the competency that we are seeking to develop in the day-to-day work.
In many cases, we build custom development plans for an individual, so the plans grow and change as the individual does.
We also have a number of structured development pathways in ABB, such as the ABB Competence Development Program. This framework looks at building a strong people culture, offering the opportunity to enrich cross-functional knowledge, improve collaboration and open up new career paths.
The program has four components:
- Basic training: Understand the role and gain knowledge of the appropriate tools and processes
- Coaching: Work with a designated coach who will help you transition into this new role and reach your goals
- On the job training: Learn the skills required on the job, while adding your own unique perspective
- Networking: Grow your network outside of your function/organisation
Finally, we appreciate the value of having diversity. Not only in gender, but also in thought and inclusivity. We recently launched a new “Global Diversity & Inclusion Strategy 2030” through which we will work towards doubling the proportion of female managers worldwide over the next ten years. With this step, ABB aims to increase the share of women in senior management positions to 25%, up from the current 12.5%.