The ability to retain engineering talent can make or break a company. That’s why the competition for 10x engineers is so intense.
Shockingly, throwing money at the problem isn’t the ultimate solution. Companies need to dig deeper and be more strategic. After all, top engineering talent can choose to work anywhere they please.
To tackle this ruthless engineering market, it’s crucial to learn from the best of the best. I’m going to share 11 foolproof ways to retain engineering talent. These tips come from the brightest engineers I know—folks who work at Apple, SpaceX, Netflix, Bechtel, and more.
#1 Offer competitive compensation packages
Let’s tackle money right away. It’s a huge factor and the most discussed aspect of retaining engineering talent. If your pay is low, no matter what else you offer, it’ll be pointless. You won’t be able to keep any engineering talent.
So first and foremost, pay a market competitive salary. Then, reward engineers who level up their skills with pay increases. Don’t forget about annual raises either. I’m not talking about a measly 2% bump every couple of years, especially with inflation raging through the U.S. economy.
It’s worth mentioning that some companies trade high salaries for other financial perks. This might include stock-based pay, bonuses, or fantastic health benefits. Salaries alone don’t always paint the full picture, but the entire compensation package does.
Ultimately, engineers need a salary that covers their cost of living. Ironically, it’s talent that keeps the owners’ pockets full. 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 substantial. A company should always be willing to pay to retain engineering talent. The alternative—finding new, unproven talent—is always expensive and high risk.
#2 Provide interesting technical work
It’s incredibly tough to retain engineering talent if your company only designs screws. The best of the best engineers want to work on cutting-edge, cool projects. Plus, top-end engineers have endless employment options.
For example, compare designing screws to working on a fusion reactor. Without a doubt, the latter work is more stimulating and inspiring. That’s why Steve Jobs aimed to infuse a sense of purpose into Apple’s work culture. He stated:
“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.”
Moreover, it’s crucial for companies to cater to their superstar engineers early on. This means providing opportunities for creative work without micromanagement. Top-level engineers want the freedom to experiment and explore.
#3 Build an awesome management team
10x engineers crave the freedom to call their own shots, without extra mental baggage. It’s a total nightmare when non-engineers make crucial technical decisions. Almost always, it leads to work restrictions, which ticks off plenty of engineers.
Equally important, if something goes south, don’t trash the whole engineering plan. Instead, let the engineer tweak their design. Empowerment and autonomy are game-changers in high-level engineering work.
Now, not every manager has to be an engineer by trade. But all managers should have some technical chops, especially in an engineering-focused company.
The management culture
In some large companies, the founding management practices can be bullshit. However, good managers can still thrive by spotting the bullshit and working around it. For example, a good manager might say 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 engineers’ lives much easier. On the other hand, spineless managers who won’t fight for their engineers are toxic.
In short, get out of the way of your engineers and give them freedom. That’s why you hired expert engineers in the first place. You don’t hire them to be overrun by people with Arts degrees who don’t know a thing about engineering.
This is why many engineers appreciate the work culture at Elon Musk’s companies. The work atmosphere is intense, but the culture is engineer-centric. Elon shares his thoughts 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 they respect. This talent-rich environment helps everyone level up.
I’ve always worked with fantastic 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 outstanding engineers around me, I couldn’t have grown my skills to where they are today. I know every engineer feels the same way. Believe it or not, no one wants to be the smartest person in the room. It’s like in pro sports – superstar athletes today want to play alongside other superstars.
#5 Show respect to everyone
I mean, duh, right? But you’d be surprised how many companies treat their engineers like shit. For example, as an engineer, I wouldn’t dream of telling an accountant how to do their job. But somehow, folks from all corners of a company feel entitled to boss engineers around. Seriously, where’s the professional courtesy?
If you treat your engineering talent like disposable parts with no say, they’ll pack their bags. At the same time, accountability needs to be part of the work culture. Don’t play favorites with an engineer just ’cause they’re part of the good ol’ boys club. Treat everyone equally and fairly.
Remember, engineers are people, not machines. Fostering mental health through respect is key to keeping those engineering talents around.
#6 Provide remote work and flexible work hours
In the wake of Covid-19, remote work needs to be an option. Even a 4-day week can be your secret weapon for hanging onto engineering talent. This kind of flexibility is a game-changer, helping engineers juggle work and personal life.
So get with the times and adopt the remote work lifestyle. If you don’t, your company will fall behind more modern, adaptable organizations. Most engineers can do their jobs just as well from their cozy living rooms. So there’s hardly any loss in productivity if you pick the right talent.
#7 Create career progression transparency
Engineers, like everybody else, want to know how to climb that promotional ladder. Promotions usually mean fatter paychecks and maybe even more exciting work. And as we’ve talked about, those factors are key for keeping engineering talent on board. Plus, most engineers are goal-driven, so it’s a win-win for morale.
My advice? Whip up a career roadmap, showing engineers the ins and outs of getting promoted. That way, they’ll know whether their hard work is helping them level up in their careers.
Important Note: At large companies, a distinct hierarchy exists. In smaller companies, though, there’s not much room for promotions. A junior engineer isn’t too far off from the CEO in ranking. For example, 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 necessarily moving up the ranks.
#8 Offer exceptional vacation packages and set expectations
Even we workaholics need a break now and then! And let’s face it, paid time off is a big deal, especially when you’ve got a family with kiddos to entertain. But here’s the catch – some companies dangle the carrot of “unlimited vacation time.” So, how much vacation do regular folks actually take?
Turns out, most people only grab about 2 weeks of vacation a year. Why? Well, they’re afraid of losing their jobs if they take more. So that “unlimited vacation” is just a sneaky way to lure engineers in.
When engineers catch on to this trick, they’ll split in no time. So be real about the vacation time you’re offering. Tell it like it is – 4 weeks, 6 weeks, whatever it may be. And give your engineers the lowdown on whether they’ll need to answer calls and emails while they’re soaking up the sun. Trust me, this is a big deal!
Important Note: I always suggest engineers ask about legit annual vacation time. It’s all about setting the right expectations.
I’ve seen more and more companies making sure their employees take at least X weeks off every year. This is great for those engineers who might be shy about taking time off. Yep, peer and social pressure are alive and well, even among seasoned engineers.
#9 Do regular employee check-ins
Don’t let your engineers turn into hermits in their offices or cubicles! Instead, pop in for regular check-ins and get their take on things.
Your goal is to hear what’s on their minds – their hopes, dreams, and concerns. Listen up, gather feedback, and tackle any issues before they turn into big ol’ piles of resentment. Because, let’s be honest, that’s when you’ll find yourself dealing with a sudden talent exodus. So nip those problems in the bud, and you’ll sidestep that crisis.
Important Note: Make sure everyone’s voice is heard. It’s essential for your engineers to feel safe and able to share constructive criticism.
#10 Create a winning culture
Everybody wants a workplace that’s upbeat and positive, right?
Now, I get it, lots of engineers are introverts by nature. I’m not suggesting you throw a wild bash with cocktails and confetti. But hey, give credit where credit’s due!
Imagine someone toiling away on a project for months, burning the midnight oil night after night. And when it’s all done, they don’t even get a high-five or a “nice job!” No matter how introverted or zen-like an engineer might be, nobody wants to feel like a cog in the machine. If that keeps happening, they’ll hit the road, no doubt.
On the other hand, turn setbacks into learning opportunities. ‘Cause let’s face it, failures and slip-ups are the best teachers, even for top-dog engineers.
#11 Ditch those tired old business practices and rules
It blows my mind how many clunky, outdated ways of doing business still exist today. Not only are these methods ancient, but they’re also like kryptonite for superstar engineers. And let’s be real, superstar engineers are a breed apart from your average Joes. They’ve got their own quirks – which, by the way, is why they’re freakin’ amazing at what they do.
Take, for example, the old-school practice of judging people based on appearances. You know, if an engineer isn’t glued to their screen from 8 to 5, they must be slacking off. C’mon, if you’ve spent even a year in the corporate world, you know how absurd that is.
I know plenty of engineers who do squat for 6 hours a day but try to look busy. That’s why you should focus on results, not superficial markers. ‘Cause some engineers strike gold working at midnight. In the end, only tangible results matter. Forget those bogus, out-of-date measures of work productivity.
Important Note: When breaking away from old workplace habits, make sure you’re not ruffling feathers or ruining team culture by giving one engineer special treatment.
“How to retain engineering talent?” wrap up
No engineering company is perfect. But if you take just a few of these 11 nuggets of wisdom to heart, you’ll be light years ahead of the competition. ‘Cause a huge part of business success boils down to keeping those engineering talents on board.
Sure, it’s a never-ending, sometimes tough-as-nails process. But it gets easier as you mold an amazing work culture. Embrace change, and you’ll create a fantastic workplace where top-notch engineers will wanna put down roots.
What do you think is most impactful to retain engineering talent? What makes you want to bail and find a new job?
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Author Bio: Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2019 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 well 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, sports, fitness, and our history and future.