Latest labour market figures show demand for job candidates continues to outstrip supply, and growth in permanent engineering placements has ground to its slowest rate of increase in over two years.
With competition for quality graduates and experienced engineers forcing up pay and bonuses, smaller firms risk losing out in the race for talent to those with bigger budgets. The challenge for SMEs is to be seen to be offering a truly better career alternative to the big boys.
And yet when it comes to finding solutions that bridge the skills gap and advance engineering as a rewarding career, the SME market has long been recognised as a rich source of innovative ideas and practical strategies. For engineers motivated by the prospect of a dynamic and varied career path, for example, many small firms are giving their larger rivals a run for their money.
Dynamic career progression
Unbound by steep and rigid hierarchical structures, small firms are offering candidates unique opportunities to work closely with professionals across engineering disciplines and with regular access to managers and directors. The divide between the coal face and top leadership is typically narrower in smaller firms, so employees get a clearer view of the bigger picture, better awareness of the part they play in helping the organisation to achieve its goals, and a realistic understanding of the opportunities available to them to develop their own careers. These are all features of the working environment that we know translate into improved levels of professional contentment, loyalty and performance.
As a result, career progression in small firms can be extremely fast with considerable flexibility to adapt an individual’s role and make the most of their talents. Small companies with ambitious growth plans can offer incredible career progression for motivated engineers at all levels. A firm with plans to grow from a turnover of £40m to £100m in three years, for example, can only achieve its objectives by recruiting and developing people with drive and ambition.
Regenerating essential skills
Engineering firms across the board are often criticised for not doing enough to regenerate skills from the bottom. And with many specialist engineers approaching retirement, and large pools of expertise moving from one industry to another – as has been the case in recent months in the oil and gas sector, which has lost significant numbers of professionals to other industries including nuclear – concern surrounding the loss of skills has reached fever pitch.
Here, too, the SME sector is stealing a march with practical schemes designed to nurture thriving teams of new talent and stem the flow of knowledge out of some areas of the industry. In some firms, this means systematically underpinning senior or specialist engineering appointments with graduate appointments, so creating clear routes for important skills to pass through the business. At the same time, junior engineers who join these programmes are being shaped into experienced specialists with the right skill sets and cultural fit to succeed in their organisations.
A growing voice
A major difficulty for small firms is getting their voices heard in the candidate market, particularly amid the clamour of the graduate recruitment season, and alongside glossy, big budget campaigns afforded by larger players. Many candidates will always be seduced by status, but a greater understanding of the unique advantages of working in small engineering firms is needed if we are to go some way towards levelling the playing field.
This has motivated a movement of small firms based in the North West of England to collaborate with each other; combining marketing budgets, time and people power to generate a louder voice and a clearer message to appeal to graduates. Their objective is to generate a wider pool of quality candidates from which they can select those with the right mix of skills and aspirations to work well in their businesses.
In my experience, the SME sector is home to some of the most passionate, charismatic and inspirational leaders in the industry, and the energy with which they lead is one of the most appealing factors in attracting and retaining talent. By creating a platform for their leaders’ voices to be heard by the candidate market, SME businesses can go a long way to setting themselves apart from the competition.
Capacity to thrive
Attracting and retaining talent is a major issue whether you’re a multi-national blue chip or an SME, but at a time when the increasing trend is to throw money at the issue, small firms need to innovate and play to their strengths in order to compete. This end of the market holds unique advantages for ambitious candidates – from diverse and varied roles, to clear and dynamic career paths. And by using their collective voice to appeal to a wider field of talent, providing direct access to their leadership teams and delivering great internal communication, the SME market truly has the capacity to thrive in a stagnant labour market.
Garry Rogerson is managing director of specialist technical recruitment company Perpetual Engineering Partnerships