Stop the Churn

Investing in careers can help prevent talent from going elsewhere says Kirstin Donohue of Connect

Earlier this year, the Institution of Civil Engineers reported that the top 20 recruiters in the industry had taken on more than 16,000 engineers between them worldwide over the past 12 months including both new graduates and fully-qualified and experienced engineers. These companies cited increasing demand in the UK, as well as increased infrastructure schemes elsewhere across the globe.

Taking into account the anticipated boom in house-building across the UK - and the perennial skills shortages in some specialist areas - these figures all signal new levels of churn in the job market. Not only will there be newly-created positions to fill, employees who have been treading water during the downturn could well decide that now is the time to move. Even if a business now has the right people in the right places, they can’t afford to be complacent.

So what can be done to stop the best talent walking through the door – and into the arms of the competition?
Talent management has been a key issue for HR teams in the construction industry for a while now. It involves identifying rising stars, preparing staff to progress through the company and ensuring that there are people with the right credentials ready to take over from older engineers who are retiring. But it can – and should – also include nurturing home-grown talent, encouraging personal career development and ensuring that staff are totally up-to-date with new technologies and methods, for their own sakes and for that of the business. It also enables senior managers to plan and ensure that they have access to the right skills and provides a blueprint for evolution as demands and methods change.

Encouraging personal development is always a good motivator when it comes to retaining staff. Yet, the tendency is to ignore the further development of technical and engineering skills, taking these as read, and instead focus on investing in management or other business training. Of course, many engineers do need training in ‘soft skills’, but by ignoring the latest digital advances they may find even their core skills are outdated.

Most engineers are good at taking things apart and asking ‘how does it work?’. They are also very good at teaching themselves, especially when it comes to learning new software where it often becomes a matter of pride to rise the challenge without anyone else’s help. Consequently, it’s often tempting for employers to leave them to it.

However, DIY learning is very different from professional training which teaches best practice and how to use software in the most productive way. So, when this type of training is ignored, businesses miss out maximising their investment in their technology. These days technology means so much more than just knowing where to click. The building design world has been using digital methods for a long time now, but the construction industry itself, always a tad more traditional, has been slower to adopt new methods. However, now IT is becoming less of a mere facilitator and more of an integral part of business strategy.

In fact, the disciplines in the world of design and build have experienced dramatic change – and this is ongoing with new developments coming at an accelerated pace. As a result, there is often a gap between what is being taught in higher education and what is required in the professional environment. So even new graduates may not be totally abreast of new ideas. Some qualified engineers may have spent time ‘resting’ during the recession and have gaps in their knowledge and even those who have kept their jobs may now be lulled into thinking they don’t need any further training.

This latter category are the ‘ones to watch’ as far as employers are concerned. They have the right background and are integral to the business. They may sense that they could now be in demand and may have even been courted by competitors. Yet, they probably don’t think that they need further training or believe they just don’t have time. However, this doesn’t mean that they won’t benefit from refreshers and updates and appreciate the investment in their careers.

They could still prove a problem for employers wanting to develop new strategies for growth in changing market conditions. Ideally this is the layer of staff that could help move the business forward, but to be of value they need to know about the latest technological developments and new thinking or best practice.

Employers need to work on changing this attitude – and at the same time, communicate this need in a way that highlights the benefit to the employee too. Digitisation has brought a transformation in concept design, workflow, testing and analysis. It hasn’t only changed how buildings are designed, but has also had an impact on supply chains and scheduling – in fact all the issues that are central to the work of project managers at this level. Even professionals in their 30s and 40s began their working lives in a completely different environment to today.

The government mandate on using building information modelling (BIM) to a certain level for all public sector construction projects by 2016 looks set to highlight this discrepancy further. Of course, BIM is a well-established part of the business model of most large contractors today. But this puts smaller firms who haven’t yet adopted the strategy at a double disadvantage – and their employees who haven’t yet had experience of a BIM project.

Yet there are ways to remedy this situation. For example, recently Northumbria University, along with Ryder Architecture, has founded the BIM Academy and one of its courses is an intensive three-day Virtual Project programme. As Justine Grey of the BIM Academy explains: “It saves that Catch 22 situation where a company needs experience of a BIM project to get the work, but they can’t get the experience until they’ve got the work. This way they can build BIM experience at the bid stage.” The course can also provide a ‘dry run’ for newly formed teams to quickly assess their capability and responsibility and iron out the inevitable problems.

Investing in the future of employees by taking advantage of courses such as this is a signal to them that they have a long-term career with the company. Vendor-approved training and certification gives them a global benchmark for their skills. Of course, the risk will be that it also enables them to market their skills elsewhere more readily. However, there’s no better way to instil loyalty than an employer showing that they have their team’s interests at heart as well as that of the wider business.

In this way, training and certification in the latest technologies and techniques can foster a new purpose, energy and enthusiasm. Indeed it can help revitalise an employee’s interest and they may suddenly find there’s no need to change jobs, after all.

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