How to Beat the Technical Talent Shortage
A Practical Five-Step Approach
One of the top challenges currently facing the global coatings industry is the need for technical talent. Most senior managers are acutely aware of the frustrating length of time it takes to get even one new technical hire, let alone build a complete, strong R&D team, or an expert tech service function. Gaps in the technical functions of the business inhibit driving innovation, effective customer support and many other critical initiatives. This slows growth and erodes profits. The sales teams can only sell the solutions R&D has developed, so a bottleneck there directly impacts the bottom line. The burden of constantly evolving regulatory requirements also puts pressure on innovation, not just as a means to growth but literally as essential to survival. Plus, the domino effect can demotivate salespeople, overburden the technical team you do have, and cause good individuals in other departments to jump ship if either the R&D engine or the technical support system is chronically lacking.
The talent market is tight; the coatings industry is a complex technical field with many self-identified specializations that most universities don’t directly speak to (and the exceptions are not enough to meet the demand for knowledgeable professionals). The most common way someone typically gains industry experience is by landing at a coatings company and finding they like it: not exactly a dependable pipeline for expertise. In addition, the industry has more than its fair share of “home-grown” talent with extensive knowledge but few truly analytical systems or processes to call on. These individuals often hold positions of significant responsibility, and are hard if not impossible to replace at their current employer because the knowledge is in their head; but they rarely add strategic value to another company. This is especially noticeable in emerging economies where the industry is less consolidated and more fragmented, with regional and local companies that frequently have less sophisticated technical staff. As global players move into these markets and seek good technical talent for regional tech centers, the supply/demand equation becomes even more lopsided.
What are the solutions? There are some approaches that always work, and some that don’t. Many that don’t are being used by companies of all sizes – and the results are predictable. The following points will specifically address R&D hiring, but the concepts apply equally to other departments such as tech service, applications, etc.
A Five-Step Approach
1. Have a good internal process to handle candidates. The intake and interview flow, leading to an offer, need to be effective in engaging good candidates and weeding out mediocre or unqualified ones. This sounds obvious, but it is the number-one mistake in technical hiring. Companies are often their own worst enemies with poor or no effective process to handle such valuable and rare commodities as qualified candidates. In many companies, HR is the first point of contact for a prospective candidate, yet HR is often completely unqualified to judge if someone is (or could be) truly a good fit technically. This approach is like turning over your best sales prospects to the accounting department. You may never really know what you missed.
Similarly, most technical managers are not experienced interviewers; nor are they good at it. That is not their job. Yet many companies move straight from HR screening to technical interview. Compounding the problem, technical candidates rarely sell themselves well. The end result is frequently that nobody has a strong level of confidence in hiring the candidate, and the candidate isn’t confident of the opportunity. Invest in interview training for your technical managers to enable them to qualify beyond the chemistry. Include cross-functional interviewers with high emotional intelligence and listen to their input. Don’t expect the candidate to sell him or herself like a sales person, but be ready to draw them out about their accomplishments so you can find out what they really contributed. And when you have someone good, close strongly and don’t drag out the offer negotiation process. This is not a buyer’s market, and you will lose the best talent if you fumble the offer. Conversely, a strong, solid offer articulating the opportunities and benefits available such as additional training and education can help you land a good candidate when you are up against competition. Don’t underestimate the importance of the interview and offer process. Smart process delivers good ROI.
2. Educate your team on the central importance of technical talent to your total value chain, and clearly convey the sense of urgency necessary to address it. The economics speak for themselves: we are aware of technical coatings companies who believe their growth rate could more than double if they had sufficient R&D bandwidth to address known needs. Yet all too often, the search for the “perfect” candidate drags on, and a year or more to fill a technical position is not uncommon. This is a business killer! The same company that would fire a sales manager for the obvious consequences of leaving key sales territories vacant for a year can delay technical hiring and not even realize the fallout. It is the job of senior leadership to convey that these hires are critical to business success, and prioritize finding acceptable solutions in a timely manner in order to keep business driving forward.
3. Offer real career development paths to technical personnel. This motivates your existing team and attracts better new employees. Money is one thing; but many technical professionals are equally, if not more, motivated by other factors such as scope of work, opportunity for further technical education, or the chance to own a new product from concept to commercialization. Do your current organizational structure and policies truly support this? Tuition reimbursement, sponsoring attendance at technical conferences, rotational internal assignments – all these can have perceived value. Recognizing and rewarding your technical team for what they are truly there to do is similarly important. Many companies recognize R&D staff more for “firefighting” than for achievements related directly to their job’s actual purpose. This inevitably erodes motivation, reduces productivity and distracts from strategic priorities. A senior R&D leader recently reported spending only about two hours a day on his “official” job responsibilities. He is not unusual. Entrenched communication channels often default to “Problem? Call R&D.” Even small improvements like an escalation process can help greatly, delivering strong ROI in recovered productivity and higher motivation.
4. Be practical: hire for strengths, and be willing to expand specs, or stretch salary or bonus for a good all-around match. Know ahead of time where the real boundaries lie. There may be a technical “bullseye” you really want – but if you don’t find that exact profile in a reasonable amount of time, it is probably better for the business to hire a proven high performer one step over, (such as experience with a supplier, customer or adjacent technology) who will add value combined with a good attitude and training. A multi-variate approach to requirements is more effective. Hiring managers frequently assume specific, narrow technical expertise is the real difference maker down the road in outcomes; yet only very rarely is that true. Knowledge can be learned eventually; but you absolutely cannot change core motivators and attitude.
So the most important question is, “What is the common denominator of technical expertise that is truly necessary to meet the primary business goals?” Could you hire someone with experience of similar chemistries, substrates, applications, or whatever is the critical factor, plus proven success in innovating/developing new products, and support their learning your specialization? If you transplant a young tree into a good growing environment, it will establish, catch up and pass a more mature transplant in just a few years. The same is often true for people. You may be able to land a far better all-around talent package by widening some of the specs just a bit. That may seem counter intuitive, but in this particular talent market I have seen it work time and again. On the other hand, if the specific subject matter expertise is truly essential, be ready to pay for it, and act quickly and decisively. The time to ROI is shortened, and that individual will positively affect the total financial picture of the company. For such a unique person, it is not the time to get stuck in bureaucracy. Large companies may have to raise the title level to get in the salary range; or provide additional bonuses or benefits. There is an old saying “Quality, speed and price – pick any two.” The same concept applies in hiring hard-to-find talent. “Subject matter expertise, time to hire, and salary – pick any two.” Spending months looking for a unicorn will not get you anywhere.
5. Grow your own, starting now. Even small companies can invest in training for new employees who do not have deep segment experience. If you have to hire outside the core knowledge area, or perhaps a more junior level of experience than is ideal, you can greatly reduce your risks and increase your ROI by providing a structured, meaningful training program internally or externally as soon as possible after the new employee is on board. Most technical new hires that fail, do so in the first few months due to lack of proper orientation or training. The cost of such fall off is always underestimated when considered only as a multiple of salary. Effective training programs take some time to develop, but there are probably people inside your organization right now who could be tapped to help. Making it a clear priority of top management and allocating a share of time and resources will go a long way to ensuring successful execution. Intentionally dismantling silos and rewarding collaboration is centrally important to this.
The preceding ideas are practical tools that can be implemented successfully in most companies. In a tight talent market, you win by being creative and executing well. You cannot create talent that does not exist, but you can make the most of the talent that is available, and prevent losses resulting from a lack of the right people in the right seats. And, by doing a better job than your competition in recognizing, attracting, engaging and developing high performers, you can gain the strategic advantage.