Continuity, in terms of engineering staffing, is a rare thing. Many organizations struggle to find suitable engineering candidates. Onboarding is a long process where new engineers are often placed into semi-apprenticeships before taking on serious responsibilities. Replacing key contributing engineers is often an all-hands emergency. Unfortunately, a number of issues that range from generational issues to increased hyper-specialization promise to only make matters more difficult.

The Saddle Generational Profile of Engineering Organizations

Engineering, like any other organization, is generally not homogeneous in terms of age. Usually engineering is composed of Baby Boomers getting ready to retire, Gen-Xers in the middle of their careers and Gen-Yers just starting off. But as generational cohorts, these segments are not equally sized. In the ’70s and ’80s, a massive number of Baby Boomer engineers were hired. Then in the ’90s and early ’00s, with Gen-X being smaller and less drawn to engineering careers, hiring tailed off. Fast forward to late ’00s and now, there has been an upswing in hiring engineers out of that are Gen-Y. The typical engineering organization’s age distribution started high, sloped down into a valley and has come back up. In that way, it resembles a saddle.

The Brain Drain Threat from Retiring Boomer Engineers

The implication of the saddle-shaped age distribution means that engineering organizations are front loaded with Baby Boomer engineers. As many of them approach retirement, the elephant in the room question is simple: who will replace them? Most successors will be Gen-X engineers. However, because there are fewer of them, there aren’t enough Gen-Xers in terms of one-to-one replacements. To fill the gap, many organizations will turn to Gen-Y engineers who have far less design experience. All of this combines for a perfect storm of organizational knowledge loss and shortfall in decision-making experience. Not only do many engineering organizations find that much of their knowledge is walking out the door, there’s also less experienced engineers to pick up the slack.

Engineering Specialization Narrows the Scope for Hiring

Backfilling retiring Boomer engineers isn’t just about finding anyone to step into the gap. Engineering roles are becoming increasingly specialized. This is in part due to products that are increasingly mechatronic in nature, where engineering organizations need engineers with deep levels of expertise in systems, mechanical, electrical and software disciplines to keep up with the rapidly changing technology. Layoffs from the recessions flooded the market with available engineers. However, do they have the exact expertise the organization needs? It’s no longer about any hire. It’s about the right hire.

Recruiting the Next Generation of the Right Engineers

If and when the right engineer is found, engineering leaders may find it hard to recruit them into the organization. Engineers from Gen-Y have dramatically different priorities than their predecessors. They crave roles where they can have an immediate impact. They want flexibility with their work time, as they frequently intermix their professional and social lives. They want to use modern technology in the workplace, sometimes even their own technology. And monetary compensation isn’t at the top of their list. When engineering organizations start competing for the right engineer, these differing priorities can make a big difference in where the Gen-Y engineer chooses to go.

The Challenge of Generational Differences and Hyper-specialization

  • When Boomer engineers begin to retire in large numbers, a huge amount of design experience and knowledge will be walking out the door. Engineering leaders must find a way to mitigate the brain drain threat of retiring Boomer engineers.
  • Traditional recruitment tactics can’t be used to bring the next generation of engineers into the organization. Different generations will have very different priorities than their predecessors. Engineering leaders must find ways to recruit Gen-Y engineers by offering benefits other than monetary compensation.