Filling the Skills Gap: Strategic Hiring and Succession Planning


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While attending the IEEE Rising Stars Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, I had a long and insightful conversation with veteran technical recruiter Terry McNabb. We covered so much information that the interview has been broken into two sections. In this section, Terry and I discuss the shortage of mid-career expertise in the workforce and best practices for hiring experienced technical staff.

Be sure to read the other part of my conversation with Terry in this month's issue of PCB007 Magazine, where we discuss how to sell your services.

Nolan Johnson: I’m here with Terry McNabb who is a senior regional trainer from MRINetwork. Can you refresh us on your role and organization?

Terry McNabb: MRINetwork is one of the largest executive search and recruitment organizations in the world. It has been in business as a franchise organization for over 50 years with approximately 400 offices spanning four continents.

The most interesting thing about MRINetwork is that, for instance, most of the people who place electrical engineers are electrical engineers, so they understand the industry. They have a depth of understanding from years of working in it. Then, we teach them the recruiting process and how to identify the top performers in any marketplace, engage those people, and deliver them to our client companies.

Johnson: And you are involved with the training that they were doing yesterday afternoon here at the IEEE Rising Stars Conference.

McNabb: And this morning as well. Yesterday, we did a workshop helping young engineers create a strategy to get their first job or advance themselves. Topics included how to write a better resume, engage managers, identify their value, and increase that value by preparing for their next move.

Johnson: Have you been doing this for a while?

McNabb: Yes, I’ve been with MRINetwork for 34 years—18 years placing people within one of our franchises, and 16 years as basically a global aggregator for the corporate learning and talent development team. They’ve sent me to the top performers around the world to learn all of their best practices, and then combine that as our methodology for everyone.

Johnson: One of the things going on in the industry I cover is that there is an age demographic gap. There are a large number of people who are 55 and older and starting to look at retirement. Then, the majority of labor after that is 30 and under. There’s a large gap between the experts and entry-level employees with not many people to fill that gap. It’s starting to look like a crisis for electronics and contract manufacturers, especially in the U.S. and North America. There’s increasing activity to figure out how to bring skilled technical labor in through organizations like SMTA, IPC, and also here at IEEE. Do you see this dynamic in the skilled workforce you interact with?

McNabb: It’s interesting because yes, I think there is a succession planning crisis in most companies. Many HR managers get trapped in what we call “administrivia,” which is handling all of the other aspects of their job and not being able to rise to the strategic leadership of the company.

Johnson: So, getting stuck in the urgent but unimportant.

McNabb: Exactly. Companies need HR to be on the strategic leadership team. They need succession planning, talent mapping, and strategic hiring rather than just tactical hiring. Now, I know that’s not a common phrase, but it’s a phrase that I use a lot. It represents a mentality of, “I need an engineer with five years of experience so that I can fill this empty slot,” which is a tactical hire. HR should move to strategic hiring or workforce planning, which looks at new problems the company will face, or a case of, “We’re about to leverage this new technology. Let me find an engineer who’s already completed that transition with another company, and examine the composition of talent that’s on my team now. If I have a lot of strength in several areas, but I have a bit of a deficit in one, I should find the person who will most effectively augment the composition of talent on my team.” That new hire could not only do that important new task, but they can also mentor all of the other people on the team, making everyone on the team better.

Johnson: In that sort of a hiring decision process—how long of a tenure should that hiring manager be targeting? Are we talking up to five years or longer than that?

McNabb: Companies are faced with a quandary. One is that they have a succession crisis. They have to find a way to develop the future leadership of the company, and they can’t wait on millennials. But at the same time, the average tenure keeps dropping. So, if I’m convinced that you’ll be in the C-suite five years from now, you might well be three companies down your career by then. The bigger trend that we see is people are hiring more to a specific need. I might not be able to keep you for several years, but you can solve this million-dollar problem, so even if you only stay for a year, I’m in good shape. It’s also a huge trend among millennials to not be hired at all but instead appear on a contract basis.

Johnson: I see that a lot.

McNabb: Two major forces are driving that. One is a lack of trust that companies have their best interests at heart such as, “You laid off my parents, and I don’t trust that you’re going to keep me.” That’s a part of it, but I think the larger part of it by far is simply the rate of change in today’s world.

Johnson: How else do you keep up? That’s a lot of technology transfer and evolution underneath you in one particular position with one particular company.

McNabb: Yes. So, what’s happening in today’s world? A lot of people are saying, “I just solved this important problem for my current company,” and many top performers experience a post-accomplishment letdown. They had all the resources and attention—it was exciting work—but now they’re going back to checking code? Instead, what many of them do is say,

"There's an infinite number of companies out there who need to solve this problem. I don’t need job security; I have career security."

To read this article, which appeared in the February 2019 issue of SMT007 Magazine, click here.

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