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Training and Retaining Talent

Why do we keep losing good talent to other organizations or, worse, to other industries?

At industry forums, I often discuss early talent development strategies with other managers. A common theme I hear is how young talent does not stay long at one position or in one organization. Some millennials are looking for an expedited path to a promotion and higher salary, and for them, company loyalty does not exist anymore. I certainly understand that perspective, but the root of this challenge is not only with millennials, but also with the culture of career development. Despite efforts to the contrary, we have not mastered talent retention. Why do we keep losing good talent to other organizations or, worse, to other industries?

We will see a major migration of talent out of our industry in the next few years. To begin the process of replacing these retiring subject-matter experts, finding and hiring qualified engineering graduates is only the starting point. The real challenge is in training and retaining talent for the decades to come. A parallel can be drawn to the slowed investment of the U.S. power systems infrastructure in the 1980s, which led to a wake-up call of aging and retiring resources. We need to understand this to be true of our people, as well.

We expect a lot from our new engineers. They have big shoes to fill and will be expected to do so within only a few years. We forget that expertise is developed over decades through extensive mentoring, training and engaging work. We place all of our bets on one individual, forgo the required support and are surprised when our expectations are left unfulfilled. How can we set up a system that supports and nurtures the people and culture for the grid of the future?

There are ways to keep millennials in their growing careers. The era when young professionals were advised to “go get a job with a pension and stay there” is long gone. Meaningful work, flexibility, competitive salary and title have become expected conditions. The most critical factors are those often neglected: effective management and personal investment. Young engineers often cite poor management as the main reason for leaving. I have found poor management to be an umbrella term that includes situations such as a lack of support in developmental training, one-note management styles and poor communication.

There is also a case of confirmation bias where managers assume their young staff are already looking for the next job. With this belief, managers do not provide adequate mentoring and training, which leaves young professionals with a lack of direction and little appreciation. If you assume every young engineer who joins already has their sights on leaving, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In these situations, young staff will need to leave in order to find a better opportunity for professional development, rather than wanting to leave to pursue greater opportunities and a higher title and salary.

We incentivize and value a management skill set over technical competency. Yet, success requires effective management right alongside technical expertise. For budding engineers, becoming a manager is logically more attractive for career progression because it comes with a higher status and salary. We drive engineers who excel technically at designing systems and solving problems to instead follow the money and become a manager. We spend more than 16 years of schooling to earn a bachelor’s degree, yet one may receive a meager few weeks of training to become a manager.

Effective managers are caring and communicative leaders who provide direction and mentor staff. They promote opportunities for two-way feedback and allow staff to communicate successes and challenges. They create a safe environment to learn technical and interpersonal skills, such as resolving conflict, managing workplace expectations and understanding upper management’s high-context culture. They also foster an environment where young professionals are encouraged to engage beyond their normal workload by writing technical papers and joining professional organizations such as CIGRE and IEEE. Young professionals are multitalented and multitasking, so we must expect that their interests are also multifaceted. Being a part of something bigger is important to the millennial mindset and demonstrates management’s commitment to investing in the next generation.

The future of our culture depends on every person in the hierarchy being part of the change. It’s time for our industry to create a new structure that incentivizes engineers equally to become principal engineers or managers. It’s also time for us to rethink what it means to be a manager. Effective management skills are not hereditary and cannot be learned during two-week seminars.

We need to invest in our talent and in our industry. We cannot let fear of employee departures drive our decisions. Count the number of wins when you retain talent in your group and celebrate the victories when we retain talent in our industry. The grid of the future depends on all of us.

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