A shortage of engineers? Contradictions and complexities

Europe's shortage of engineers is well reported. Yet engineering professionals with seemingly strong credentials are still failing to secure jobs.

In our June survey 1, AHEAD sought explanations for this contradiction among mostly senior engineering managers, general managers and HRDs. While just over half of respondents (56%) confirm a shortage of engineers, nearly 28% were not sure, and 16% reported no shortage at all.

So what are the reasons for these discrepancies? Is it simply a question of demand and supply? Or could employers themselves be partly to blame?

AHEAD’s survey provided a useful snapshot into a complex market. Results show convincingly that engineering employers are adding more and more requirements to their recruitment criteria, expecting that in a downturn a perfect candidate will eventually emerge. They tend to have very narrow requirements and hold out for a perfect fit rather than being prepared to train new hires.

Answers came from mostly senior engineering managers, general managers and HRDs from a range of companies in relevant sectors (industrial, services, high tech, consumer), with mostly European or Belgian responsibilities.

Joost Strubbe, HRD of Puratos, described shortages as ‘not critical’ because of a reduced number of open positions, though he reports that the market is particularly tight in electromechanics and for bioengineers. ‘ The reasons are both quantitative and qualitative,’ he explains.

 ‘The number of engineers is too low and the requirements are sometimes very specific. The impact is that sometimes we look for temporary solutions, or the position stays open for a longer period. At the same time we are placing more emphasis on building a pipeline of talent by improving our talent management and development actions and plans.’

nicolas goffaux
Nicolas Goffaux
In line with this, AHEAD’s survey shows greater shortages of electromechanical engineers surprisingly than software engineers, though a broad span of specialisms seem affected. To review these results in more detail please click here… http://www.surveymonkey.net/MySurvey_ShareResults

Results show that shortages are greatest for engineers with 6-10 years’ experience (55%) with less experienced professionals (45%) and newly qualified engineers (40%) not far behind.

Over 81% agreed that there is a shortage of technical non-university profiles; that too few young people are studying engineering; and that employment prospects for engineers are better than other less technical disciplines.

‘Youngsters starting engineering studies seem to fall back, but main gap exists between students who finish engineering studies and the ones really starting as engineer,’ commented one contributor. ‘Many engineers use their skills/broad knowledge/analytical thinking in other non-engineering domains (Banking, FMCG...). ‘

Interestingly over 86% of respondents also agreed online that tick-box recruitment software eliminates too many potentially good candidates.

‘Any online assessment process should be accompanied by an interview or some sort of 'human' assessment,' comments Annik Vandeputte, R&S Officer at SPIE Belgium.

'It's true that we currently get few CVs in following ads and recruitment agencies struggle to find potential candidates. Engineers are increasingly difficult to attract faced with so many opportunities and are so sought after by different companies. The profiles we hire are rarely unemployed. Besides, in today’s economic climate, good potential candidates think twice about changing companies,’ she explains.

'Nowadays we eventually find a solution but it takes time. Sometimes we need to take on board someone who is not a 100% match, in this case we support the new employee with a specific training program. We also offer internships and additional flexibility at work.'

‘Some clients insist on an engineer coming from the same sector as understandably the person will be up and running faster. Others look for strong transferable skills, but insist on some additional requirements such as a PMI qualification, PLC experience, or Scripting Scada...,’ explains AHEAD’s Nicolas Goffaux, himself a Commercial Engineer ICHEC and Vlerick MBA alumnus.

‘In my recent experience, process engineers for the chemical industry and software engineers are the hardest to find right now as demand outstrips supply of those with 5-10 experience – especially if you are looking for typical AHEAD high achievers with good communication skills and potential to evolve in a big organisation.

'I would not say that salary is a big issue when hiring engineers, but location can be' adds Nicolas Goffaux... As can employment status, with some companies preferring the commitment and control that employee status brings over freelance hires (eg. SAP, Java, Sharepoint profiles). While other companies prefer more flexible arrangements during a headcount freeze.

Even if top notch companies do not find these sought after profiles easily, companies still hold out for only the best and will not compromise on standards. They almost always find a solution, even if it takes a little longer to recruit, or being a little more flexible on their profile criteria. But AHEAD is there to help them.’

1 AHEAD online survey based on results from 82 senior engineering, general management and HR professionals with a good insight into engineer recruitment in early June 2013