Filling the skills gap: How system integrators find, retain talent

System integrators face unique challenges in the "skills gap." Learn how SIs are trying to attract the brightest talent and what they’re doing to keep workers without jeopardizing client relations.
By Control Engineering Staff April 3, 2008

System integrators face unique challenges in filling the engineering “skills gap” as their customers can hire away talented engineers. For the past several months, Control Engineering has been highlighting the skills gap , which so many industrial businesses have been facing. The problem is rooted in many factors– from poor science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning programs to a notable absence of engineering “role models” in the public consciousness. Finding and retaining quality engineering employees is more challenging than ever.
In addition to wrestling with the issues “traditional” manufacturers must face, there are a few interesting twists unique to system integrators.
During the course of a project, the integrator’s engineers become so deeply entrenched in the day-to-day operation of the business that customers often find the engineer indispensable. Larger clients in particular can typically lure engineers with higher pay or the “prestige” of working for an organization which carries a marquee name. One integrator shares its ways of keeping in-house talent motivated, loyal and– most importantly – on the payroll.


is a multi-discipline integrator with

offices throughout North America

. Dan Purvis, general manager of the company’s

Houston, TX office,

explained that although his location experienced significant growth in recent years, access to engineering talent has been the greatest single factor limiting the speed of growth. The problem, according to Purvis, is that when it comes to a “war for talent,” his biggest customers are also his greatest competitors.
“As an integrator, I can take one of two paths to keep clients from hiring away my employees,” said Purvis. “I can add a‘penalty clause’ to the contract, or I can provide a better work environment that makes employees want to stay. We chose the latter.”
As Purvis explains, successful integration is largely dependent upon creating and maintaining positive relationships with customers. Placing such “poaching” restrictions within the framework of a contract can start the relationship on a negative tone and has the potential to create a sense of distrust. More importantly, however, employees shouldn’t be held back from taking advantage of a good opportunity. Purvis’ “people first” philosophy is emphasized throughout Optimation and plays a key role in attracting and retaining the type of employee that will thrive in an integrator environment.
“One of the most compelling things we try to offer employees is a diversity of job activities that often does not exist in a larger company,” said Purvis. “Our employees, even those who join the firm straight out of college, have project autonomy and accountability from day one.”
From a recruiting new talent standpoint, this feature of the Optimation work environment plays prominently in the company’s marketing materials aimed at the college audience. A recruiting brochure, for example, promotes that “every project is different” and that Optimation “solves problems where others have failed.” This approach attracts students with the right mindset and “DNA” to thrive within a system integrator environment, Purvis says.
To accelerate on-the-job learning, Optimation often employs a mentoring approach by pairing older, more seasoned engineers with younger people who are entering the business and applying what they’ve learned in the classroom. This practice helps younger employees get up-to-speed and helps veterans gain fresh perspectives and ensure that their acquired knowledge gets passed along.
By empowering employees through a high degree of autonomy, providing a diverse array of jobs and activities, and ensuring that lessons learned through years of on-the-job experience can be imparted to younger employees, Optimation has been able to build its business and expand its available skillset in a challenging (and shrinking) market for talent.
Tricks of the trade: Best practices for finding and– most importantly – keeping the right talent within the organization, according to Purvis, are to:
• Play-up the excitement & diversity
Most integrator firms are competing for talent against larger, more well-known companies. For highly-motivated students, however, the opportunity to work for a smaller company is viewed as a benefit, not a drawback. Integrator organizations can be more dynamic and enable motivated individuals to experience a broader range of activities and business environments. During the recruiting process, be sure to drive-home the point that an engineer will never be pigeon-holed working in such a company… and be sure you make good on that promise once he or she is on-board.
• Let ’em stretch their wings
One of the things that Purvis highlights to prospective employees and new hires is that employees are “not going to be mothered.” Although workers receive all of the support they need to be successful, they’re not going to be micro-managed. The best approach is to extend a high degree of self-policing. According to Purvis, most companies “manage to the weakest employee,” putting strict rules in place to prevent a small percentage of employees from taking advantage of the company. Instead, building an environment where people are responsible for their own actions, budgets, and activities, the “big brother” element of the workplace can disappear.
• Redefine the interview process
When the stuffiness of the “traditional” interview process is removed, Purvis suggests that it’s easier to get to know the prospective employee on a more accurate and telling level. For example, members of the Optimation team have been known to take a candidate to shoot pool during the interview process. The casual conversation and relaxed environment helps to eliminate many of the “canned” answers typically given during the interview process and helps prospective employers get to know the interviewee’s personality.
For more on filling the skills gap, also read:

Engineering inspiration

On-the-job training: Kids, engineering, fun
Closing the Skills Gap
Marc Moschetto, editorial director
Control Engineering System Integration eNewsletter
( Register here and scroll down to select your choice of eNewsletters free .)