How to hire engineers other companies don’t know about

Finding the right engineers for a company starts with a focus on leadership, training and a focus on the future. Learn about automated training. See six tips for effective mentorship.

By Jon Breen May 10, 2022
Courtesy: Cytonn Photography/Unsplash

 

Learning Objectives

  • Engineers are about more than being able to fix and repair things: They can offer many skills beyond that.
  • Look beyond their years of experience and find engineers who are eager to learn and are flexible and positive in their approach to work and life.
  • Automating the training process as much as possible, and giving the engineer a strong mentor, will also help them grow in their profession and life.

Anyone running an engineering business in 2022 is probably having trouble finding great people. Unfortunately, this isn’t new in industrial controls. There’s been a shortage of qualified workers for decades, and it’s getting worse.

Companies looking to improve their situations need to take a step back from immediate needs and ask, “What does the industry need, and what do employees need? Where do controls engineers come from? How can we find/make more? How can we keep them?”

One answer to all these questions is the same: Leadership, training and a focus on the future. Rising to meet these needs can help solve the hiring problem.

Seeing both sides of the employee/employer relationship is helpful, especially having worked in a lot of businesses as a consultant and contracted engineer. These engineering workforce observations and recommendation may help to hire good people when nobody else can.

Where do controls engineers come from?

New controls engineers are often hired with some sort of engineering background, electrical engineering probably being most common. Historically, controls engineers and technicians have bubbled up out of maintenance positions. Someone had the knack and started programming a PLC, and now they’re a controls engineer.

There are challenges in both paths. Hiring an electrical engineer assures you have someone with foundational knowledge for the position, but little to no background in industrial automation. Hiring a maintenance technician with “the knack” means getting someone who knows industrial automation, but they might have some big holes in foundational knowledge.

How engineers learn

Engineering school has only ever been intended as a foundation. It doesn’t teach students how to do a job; it teaches them how to solve generic problems under ideal conditions. Real jobs have always been learned on the job with the most effective examples involving mentorship. With each new project, a young engineer is coached by an experienced engineer to see what’s important in a given task, work efficiently and avoid pitfalls. This is powerful, but also limited.

The benefit of this approach is that new engineers get access to the expertise they need on demand. Each new skill and task can be learned in the context of that task. This is ultimately how engineers think and work-specific rules and processes for specific tasks so the training is a direct model of how to do the job.

The challenges of this approach mostly revolve around time. Experienced engineers’ time is very valuable, so that’s an expensive investment to bring new engineers up to speed. It also can take a long time for enough variety of projects to come around before a new engineer gets all the relevant experience they need to graduate from the mentorship approach.

In practice, new engineers often get intermittent mentorship from many people. Nobody’s keeping track of what the new engineer has learned or still needs to learn, each mentor presents different methods, and the learner must figure out how to stitch all the different methods into their own style and system. This can be a very slow process.

The solution to controls staff shortages

At the most basic level, the industry needs more controls engineers and technicians. We can make more by improving training throughout the industry – more, better and more accessible. Universities don’t target such specific job roles, so it’s our responsibility as the employers of controls personnel to do this training.  It won’t be easy, but it’s the only way to climb out of this hole, and it brings with it numerous benefits.

Widening the engineering talent pool

Controls engineers are known for being crotchety and unusual. We may laugh about that and even might minimize interactions with customers, but that can be a downside of hiring from within the current controls engineers talent pool.

A company that can quickly train new engineers can hire from a larger talent pool.

Hiring people with computer science backgrounds provides a much larger field than controls engineering, allowing a wider look at other needed trait among job candidates. They also tend to have a very strong programming background, which is what computer science is, after all, so they pick up programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and other types of industrial programming. This also gives companies the capability to program anything PC- or server-related, which is a growing part of industrial automation most controls engineers have no experience with.

Hiring an experienced controls engineer can sometimes come with unexpected challenges. A person with experience is a person with a preferred way of doing things, but that doesn’t always fit with their new employer’s needs. A lot of turnover in controls engineering results from different expectations in programming style and other job activities rather than any work quality deficiency.

A company that can train their own engineers can engrain whatever work style makes sense. This helps engineers work together more efficiently, makes management and scheduling easier because engineers are more interchangeable and avoids the effort of unteaching bad habits.

Focus on an engineer’s attitude and aptitude

OK, we’re ready to try hiring and training less experienced controls staff, but how do we select the right candidates if they don’t have 5 years of experience to review? Focus on the things you need that can’t be taught: Attitude and aptitude. This is an idea I borrowed from Murray Carter, and it’s worked very well.

I can teach a person to draw schematics, but I can’t teach them to have the same values as the team. I have a list of personality traits I review before every interview, and we ask questions intended to tease these out.

For example, we aim to be trusted and valued advisors to our customers. That requires people who are genuine, respectful, truth-oriented and creative problem solvers. We ask values-related questions in a pre-interview questionnaire to allow prospective employees to really think about these things, then we ask follow-up questions and run through scenarios in the interview. This is the “attitude” portion of the process.

When it comes to aptitude, we’re looking for “the knack” – a person who can quickly learn new things and apply them in creative ways. This has very little to do with experience. A person who’s never programmed a PLC before may still be a great candidate if they’re able to quickly learn and do similar things. To this end, we have many little aptitude-related pieces of our interviews, ranging from Sudokus to several programming languages, and targeted at understanding how a person learns and thinks rather than what they know.

To find the best engineering candidate for a company, they should look beyond years of experience or qualifications and instead look for engineers who are eager and willing to learn and expand their knowledge base. Courtesy: Breen Machine Automation Services LLC

To find the best engineering candidate for a company, they should look beyond years of experience or qualifications and instead look for engineers who are eager and willing to learn and expand their knowledge base. Courtesy: Breen Machine Automation Services LLC

Building a training system; don’t buy into automation myths

OK, so we know we want to train, and we know how to find candidates. How do we turn them into seasoned engineers/technicians? This is where the rubber meets the road. Dispel with years of myths that custom automation is too custom to be taught. “You need years of experience.”

Instead, let’s look at this like engineers. Engineers are efficient and effective by following a set process repeatedly. This process can be codified and learned.

First, look at the job description and break things into logical chunks. This will vary by position, but let’s use a controls engineer position as an example. For custom and challenging automation projects, people need a broad background.

  • Electrical design
  • Programming
  • Panel building
  • Field wiring
  • Troubleshooting.

Break it down further. For example, “electrical design” is very broad, and too vague to help train anyone. What does a person need to do when it comes to electrical design?

  • Power distribution and load sizing
  • Schematics
  • Panel layout.

Each of these tasks is trainable. It’s possible to sit a new employee down and show them how to do it. But don’t give this bullet list to a seasoned employee, sit them down with the new person, and say, “Train this person.” A bullet list is a great start, but it’s not a system. It’s not repeatable or efficient, and it won’t consistently produce sought-after employees.

Each bullet point must have a consistent process. For example, we’ve made a very streamlined system for drawing schematics. We know exactly what goes into the process such as a bill of materials (BOM), design notes document, etc., we’ve built templates to simplify and speed up the process, we’ve built a library of reusable blocks to drop into those templates, and we’ve written a style guide to keep a consistent feel. This is a system that can be taught, and by putting in the effort up front, we’ve made it easy to teach and efficient for all our engineers to use. Now that we have an efficient system, what’s the next step? Automate the system.

Automating the training process

Engineering time is expensive, so teach this system once, do it well and record it for future employee training, which is better and more efficient than Microsoft PowerPoint. Recording the process has many other benefits such as:

  • Trainer’s time spent only once
  • Videos can be organized and have the fluff edited out for faster training
  • Videos can be rewatched as needed
  • Training is very accessible anytime and at whatever pace makes sense for the trainee
  • Mentor’s time is less interrupted with questions.

Six tips for effective mentorship

No matter how much formal training you create, mentorship will always play an important role. Companies can’t just assign a mentor to a new employee and expect a consistent, good outcome. Mentorship needs to be intentional and aligned towards real goals. Those goals need to benefit the company and employee and are the responsibility of both to achieve. This topic deserves a book of its own, but here’s a quick breakdown on critical points.

  1. Start by listing the skills you’d like a “full-fledged” engineer/technician to have. This is the guide for the rest of the process, and an easy way to keep everyone on the same page.
  2. Plan for the official mentorship to end. The skills list will help a lot here. Make sure people know when the “new guy” isn’t the “new guy” anymore. This could be as simple as an announcement at a company meeting, a change in title, or any other public gesture that fits in your company culture. If the company culture is focused around utilitarian discussions (as engineers do), that’s also fine. Part of our rite of passage is the announcement “X” person is now ready to take on emergency work for customers, which often doesn’t allow room for a mentor to participate.
  3. If the mentor attends training for any reason, send the mentee with. It’s good to have employees eventually support each other as equals, rather than mentor-mentee forever. Training together gives them a chance to develop this dynamic.
  4. Let the mentor and mentee know mistakes are expected as part of the learning process and aren’t a sign of failure. The mentee will learn and perform better if they’re not afraid for the job, and the mentor will be less likely to distance from the mentee if mistakes are made.
  5. Check in monthly with the mentor and mentee, separately, to see how things are going. You’ll learn a lot about the mentorship program, how well it’s working, and what these specific individuals need to succeed.
  6. Keep the mentee involved in the process. Let them have a say in their own training goals, pacing and mentor selection as much as reasonable.

Make smarter engineering hiring, retention happen

We’re all in the business of building the things that build things, but what happens when we don’t have enough people to build those things? We need to build those, too. There are very capable people out there looking for a company able and willing to invest in them. Companies need to stop thinking “5 years of experience” and start thinking “How productive can we help these people be?”

By offering quality training to competent people, we’re better able to serve our customers, grow our businesses, and keep doing the things we do best. We also get to tailor employees’ work habits to best fit our business needs.

Jon Breen is owner of Breen Machine Automation Services, LLC, a CFE Media and Technology content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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Keywords: workforce development, worker training, worker retention

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Jon Breen
Author Bio: Jon Breen, owner, Breen Machine Automation Services, LLC