The ability to retain engineering talent can make or break a company. This is why the competition for 10x engineers is so fierce.
And surprising to most, 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. This fact alone makes certain engineers highly critical of workplaces and extremely picky.
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 personally 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.
So without a doubt, you need to pay a market competitive salary. Then, increase the pay of engineers who level up their skills.
At the same time, 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. If you can’t do this simple no-brainer gesture, you won’t be able to retain engineering talent.
And companies who get it, know talent keeps their pockets padded. Robert Bosch, Founder of Robert Bosch GmbH, 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. Thus, 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. And frankly, top-end engineers have endless options to choose from if you don’t make the cut.
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 giving them opportunities to do creative work without any 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. The worst thing is to have non-engineers make critical technical decisions. The result almost always is work limitations and frankly, many find it insulting.
Great engineers just want the green light to get work done without the added mental overhead. THEN, 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 management practices are simply bullshit. This is the best and simplest way I can put it.
BUT, good managers can still thrive by spotting bullshit and then managing accordingly. 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 so 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 an Arts degree who don’t know a thing about engineering.
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 a breath of fresh air. Elon goes as far as to state,
“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.”
And I know, intense work environments aren’t for every engineer. Especially engineers who get up in age and have a family. So on the flip side of the coin, a good work-life balance is a biggie for some engineers. Thus, the importance of knowing who you’re hiring.
#4 Build amazing engineering teams
It goes without saying, the people around you will greatly influence you. So great engineers want to work with other awesome engineers who they respect. And this talent-rich environment helps all engineers level up.
Myself, I’ve always been around awesome engineers. And let me tell you, it makes a world of a difference. For one, I’m never embarrassed to ask questions and for help. Plus, I’m learning something new every day.
So, without having had awesome engineers around me, I couldn’t have grown my skills to what they are today. And EVERY engineer feels the same.
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. It’s no revelation, but employees aren’t machines, they’re humans. Undoubtedly, promoting mental health is critical to retaining engineering talent.
And it all starts with respect!
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 enginers what to do.
Engineers like any other professionals want a sliver of respect. It’s not too much to ask for, is it?…
If you treat everyone like a replaceable cog who has no voice, your engineering talent will quit.
At the same time, accountability needs to exist in the work culture. You don’t want to give better treatment to an engineer because he’s part of the good old boys club. You need to equally hold every person accountable.
#6 Provide remote work and flexible work hours
With the effects of Covid-19, remote work needs to be an option. Without it, it can be a deal-breaker for many engineers to work for you.
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 home life.
So, you need to acclimate to the new remote work environment. Otherwise, your company will lose out to modern operating companies.
Plus, most engineers can do their work without a hiccup from the comfort of their homes. So, there’s not much loss in productivity. It’s a win-win!
#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 by default are goal-driven. So, creating office goals to shoot for is great for morale.
In summary, create a career chart to show engineers what’s involved to get promoted. This way, every engineer knows if their work is helping them personally in the long run.
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 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.
Paid time off is huge, especially when you have a family with kids.
Now, some companies lavishly offer unlimited vacation time. BUT, how much vacation time do regular company employees actually take? This is the real question.
Maybe on average, employees 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 gimmick to get engineers through the door.
In short, be upfront and honest about the vacation time you offer. Just say 4 weeks, 6 weeks, or whatever the vacation time is. Otherwise, you’ll indirectly build frustration among your engineers.
One more thing, let your engineers know if they need to be responsive on vacations. Tell them if they need to answer calls and respond to emails. 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 the brains of your employees.
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 to be critical, as long as it’s constructive.
#10 Create a winning culture
Everyone wants to work in a fun and positive atmosphere. So, it’s important to recognize the successes of your engineers.
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. Only then, to find out their company doesn’t give a damn about them. They don’t even get a pat on the back.
No matter how introverted and zen-like an engineer is, an engineer doesn’t want to feel like a pawn. And after several times of this happening, the engineer will just 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.
All in all, 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 different treatment.
No engineering company is perfect. Far from it.
But if you at least use 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 sure, it’s a never-ending and at times grueling process. But, it becomes much easier over time as you shape an awesome work culture.
In the end, be communicative and transparent with your engineers. All the while, try to document everything, so nothing is later disputed. This will ensure you build an awesome place where top-end engineers want to grow their roots.
What do you think is most impactful to do to retain 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.