The ability to retain engineering talent can make or break a company. This is why the competition for 10x engineers is so fierce.
And surprisingly, making it rain with money isn’t the be-all and end-all. Companies need to dig deeper and be smarter. Because top-engineering talent can choose to work anywhere.
To combat this cutthroat engineering market, you need to learn what the best of the best do. I’m going to go over 11 surefire ways to retain engineering talent. These are tips I’ve collected from the smartest engineers I know. Engineers who work at Apple, SpaceX, Netflix, Bechtel, and so on.
#1 Offer competitive compensation packages
Let’s discuss money right off the bat. Because money is a huge piece and the most talked about part of retaining engineering talent. Plus, if your pay is low, all the other markers I’ll discuss will be worthless. You won’t be able to retain any engineering talent.
So first and foremost, pay a market competitive salary. Then, increase the pay of engineers who level up their skills. On the same note, annual raises are important. And I’m not talking about a measly 2% raise every 2 or so years. Especially, with inflation raging through the U.S. economy.
To point out, some companies swap high salaries with other financial vehicles. For example, stock-based pay, bonuses, and awesome health benefits. So salaries don’t always tell the entire story. But the entire compensation package will.
In the end, engineers need a salary to cover their cost of living. And the irony is, talent keeps the pockets of owners padded. Robert Bosch, Founder of Robert Bosch GmbH, famously said,
“I don’t pay good wages because I have a lot of money; I have a lot of money because I pay good wages.”
Important Note: hiring and training costs are significant. So, a company should always pay up to retain engineering talent. The alternative of finding new unproven talent is always expensive and high risk.
#2 Provide interesting technical work
It’s super difficult to retain engineering talent if your company only designs screws. The best of the best engineers want to work on cutting-edge cool projects. At the same time, top-end engineers have endless employment options.
As an example, compare designing screws to working on a fusion reactor. The latter work without a doubt is more stimulating and inspiring. This is why Steve Jobs wanted to infuse a purpose into the Apple work culture. He stated the following:
“After recruiting, it’s building an environment that makes people feel they are surrounded by equally talented people and their work is bigger than they are. The feeling that the work will have tremendous influence and is part of a strong, clear vision — all those things. Recruiting usually requires more than you alone can do, so I’ve found that collaborative recruiting and having a culture that recruits the A players is the best way.”
What’s more, it’s important companies cater to their superstar engineers early on. This includes providing opportunities to do creative work without micromanaging. Because high-level engineers want the freedom to experiment and explore.
#3 Build an awesome management team
10x engineers want the freedom to make their own choices, without the added mental overhead. The worst is to have non-engineers make critical technical decisions. The result almost always is work limitations, which many engineers find insulting.
Just as important, if anything goes wrong, the engineering plan isn’t scrapped. Rather, the engineer can iterate over their design. Empowerment and autonomy are powerful tools in high-level engineering work.
Now, of course, every manager doesn’t need to be an engineer by trade. But all managers should have some technical abilities. This isn’t too much to ask for, in an engineering-centric company.
The management culture
In some large companies, the founding management practices are bullshit. But good managers can still thrive, by spotting the bullshit and working around it. For example, a good manager may say the following to their engineers:
“I get this is bullshit, but we need to show we’ve done some work on this design. Because this piece of the design will be closely examined by higher ups. So just do the bare minimum, to make it seem like a lot of work has gone into the design. Then, we can propose a better design solution.”
These types of managers are rare, but they’re worth their weight in gold. They make the life of engineers much easier. Whereas spineless managers who won’t fight for their engineers are toxic.
In short, you should get out of the way of your engineers and give them freedom. Because this is why you hired expert engineers, to begin with. You don’t hire them to be overrun by people with Arts degrees, who don’t know a thing about engineering.
And this is why many engineers are fond of the work culture of Elon Musk companies. The work atmosphere is no doubt intense, but the work culture is engineer centric. Elon states the following on who he likes to hire:
“I look for a positive attitude and are they easy to work with, are people gonna like working with them? It’s very important to like the people you work with, otherwise life [and] your job is gonna be quite miserable. And, in fact, we have a strict ‘no-assholes policy’ at SpaceX. And we fire people if they are. I mean, we give them a little bit of warning. But if they continue to be an asshole, then they’re fired.”
#4 Build amazing engineering teams
It goes without saying, the people around you will greatly influence you. So naturally, great engineers want to work with other awesome engineers who they respect. This talent-rich environment helps all engineers level up.
Myself, I’ve always worked with awesome engineers. And let me tell you, it makes a world of a difference. For one, I’m never embarrassed to ask questions and seek help. Plus, I’m constantly learning.
Without awesome engineers around me, I couldn’t have grown my skills to where they are today. I know every engineer feels the same too. Even more, as awesome as it may sound, no one wants to be the smartest person in a room. It’s like in pro sports. Superstar athletes today want to play alongside other superstars.
#5 Show respect to everyone
Seems like a no-brainer, but many companies treat their engineers like shit. For example, as an engineer, I don’t go tell an accountant how to do their job. Yet, people from all walks of a company tell engineers what to do. This drives most engineers crazy. Where’s the professional courtesy?…
So if you treat your engineering talent like replaceable cogs with no voice, they’ll quit. At the same time, accountability needs to exist in the work culture. Don’t give better treatment to an engineer, because he’s part of the good old boys club. Rather, equally, treat everyone the same.
In the end, engineers aren’t machines, they’re humans. So, promoting mental health through respect is critical, to retaining engineering talent.
#6 Provide remote work and flexible work hours
With the effects of Covid-19, remote work needs to be an option. Even a 4-day week is a competitive advantage, to retain engineering talent. This level of flexibility goes a long way in allowing engineers to juggle their job and personal life.
So, acclimate to the new remote work environment. Otherwise, your company will lose out to modern operating companies. On the same token, most engineers can do their work without a hiccup from the comfort of their homes. So, there’s not much loss in productivity, if you screen your talent properly.
#7 Create career progression transparency
Engineers like all other employees, want to know how they can climb the promotional ranks. Because promotions usually bring greater pay and possibly more interesting work. As we already discussed, these are hugely important factors to retain engineering talent. Plus, most engineers are goal-driven, so this boosts morale.
I suggest creating a career chart, showing engineers what’s involved in a promotion. Engineers will then know if their work is helping them advance in their careers.
Important Note: at large companies, a distinct hierarchy exists. In smaller companies though, there’s not much room for promotions. Because a junior engineer isn’t too far off from the CEO in ranking. To illustrate, a promoted junior engineer becomes a senior engineer, and the next level up is the CEO.
For this reason, in smaller companies, promotions need to come in the form of greater pay. Not in moving up the ranks per se.
#8 Offer exceptional vacation packages and set expectations
Even workaholics enjoy a vacation or two every year. So paid time off is huge, especially, when you have a family with kids. The problem is, some companies lavishly offer unlimited vacation time. But, how much vacation time do regular company employees actually take?…
On average, employees may only take 2 weeks of vacation a year. Because if they take more, they’ll lose their jobs. So, unlimited vacation time is just a marketing ploy to get engineers through the door.
Once engineers realize this gimmick, they’ll leave in frustration. So, be upfront and honest about the vacation time you offer. Just say 4 weeks, 6 weeks, or whatever the vacation time is. Also, let your engineers know if they need to answer calls and respond to emails on vacation. This is a biggie!
Important Note: I encourage engineers to ask what reasonable annual vacation time is. This helps set expectations.
I’ve also noticed more companies are forcing their employees to take at least X weeks off per year. This helps engineers who are hesitant to take vacations. Peer and social pressure are real, even among aged engineers.
#9 Do regular employee check-ins
Don’t leave an engineer alone in their office or cubicle for weeks on end without checking in. Instead, have regular check-ins and pick their brains.
You want to listen to the wants, needs, and issues of each engineer. Your goal is to gain feedback and then quickly resolve any pent-up issues. Because the build-up of resentment leads to what you view as unexpected exits. So, nip problems in the bud and you’ll later avoid a crisis of lost talent.
Important Note: make sure everyone has a voice. You want every engineer to feel safe while being able to provide constructive criticism.
#10 Create a winning culture
Everyone wants to be in a fun and positive workplace.
Now I know, many engineers by nature are introverts. So I’m not saying to throw a grand party with booze and the whole nine yards. But at least, acknowledge the hard work of your engineers.
Because let’s say someone slaved away on a project for months on end while staying in late every night. But they don’t even receive a pat on the back for their finished work. No matter how introverted and zen-like an engineer is, an engineer doesn’t want to feel like a pawn. After several times of this happening, an engineer will hit the road and leave.
On the flip side, make failures learning opportunities. Because failures and mistakes are the best teachers, even for top-level engineers.
#11 Kill outdated business practices and rules
I find many inefficient old ways of doing business still exist today. Not only are these business methods outdated, but they’re kryptonite for superstar engineers. To be frank, superstar engineers are different from average engineers. It goes without saying, they have peculiar quirks. It’s one reason they have superhuman abilities.
As an example, one outdated workplace practice is judging people based on optics. You know, if an engineer isn’t sitting in the office staring at a screen from 8 to 5 they’re unproductive. If you’ve been working in the corporate world for even a year, you know by now how ridiculous this is.
I know so many engineers who absolutely do nothing for 6 hours of the workday, but try to look busy. For this reason alone, focus on results and not superficial markers. Because some engineers crank out gold while working at midnight. So, only tangible results matter. Not some bullshit outdated marker, which tries to define work productivity.
Important Note: give attention to team members when diverging from old workplace practices. You don’t want to shatter team culture, because another engineer receives preferential treatment.
No engineering company is perfect. But if you use just some of the 11 points I’ve outlined, you’ll be miles ahead of your competition. Because a big part of business success comes down to how well you retain engineering talent.
And yes, it’s a never-ending and at times grueling process. But, it becomes much easier over time as you shape an awesome work culture. The trick is to not fear change. This will ensure you’ll build an awesome workplace where top-end engineers will want to grow their roots.
What do you think is most impactful to retaining engineering talent? What factors make you want to quit and switch companies?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.