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War for talent in mechanical engineering – challenges and solutions

In mechanical engineering, there are more vacant positions than applicants. This means companies have to create the right incentives to attract skilled workers.

The German Federal Employment Agency reported around 240,000 vacant training positions at the start of the 2019 academic year – the highest number in the past ten years. This figure becomes problematic for industrial companies when compared with the number of applicants. In mechanical engineering, for example, there were only 21,000 direct applicants for 34,000 training placements – so even if every applicant were hired, there would still be 13,000 positions left unfilled. This problem further exacerbates the existing shortage of skilled workers in the industry. In a report from the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) on skilled workers in 2020, 45 percent of industrial companies stated they could not fill vacancies for the long term in 2019 because they could not find suitable new recruits. This particular set of circumstances has companies competing for skilled workers in an outright war for talent. Although the war will subside for a while in mechanical engineering and other sectors due to the coronavirus pandemic, it will pick up again over the course of the anticipated upturn.

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War for talent – mechanical engineering in the competition for skilled workers

The term “war for talent” was coined in 1997 by Steven Hankin, an employee of consultancy firm McKinsey & Company. Although the expression is somewhat over the top with its militaristic undertones, it actually fits the situation perfectly. Due to staff shortages, various companies are competing for the same skilled workers. The “weapons” used to wage this war are diverse, but much more pleasant than those used on the battlefield – including everything from flexible working hours and (digital) training opportunities to the promotion of a healthy work-life balance. These are just a few of the perks companies offer in an attempt to attract applicants.

If they want to win the war for talent, mechanical engineering companies must understand the needs of their ideal employees and cater to them.

Companies looking to win the war for talent in mechanical engineering should strive to be the best possible employer for the applicants they are trying to attract. That is why it is essential to address the needs and wishes of potential employees – but that cannot be left until one-on-one hiring negotiations. Instead, companies should fundamentally base their recruitment strategies around the core values shared by the relevant generation of applicants. There are already a number of studies that discuss this approach. The basic idea is that every generation is made up of people who were born in a particular time period and, as such, grew up under similar cultural and social circumstances. Researchers are trying to understand the values, general outlook and needs of these generations through surveys and analyses.

The generations at the heart of the war for talent in mechanical engineering

The most coveted applicants in the war for talent in mechanical engineering currently come from Generations Y and Z. The former refers to people born between 1981 and 1997, also known as “millennials”, as they were born around the turn of the millennium. According to the German “Attractive Employers 2018” study, when it comes to daily working life, millennials place a great deal of importance on a pleasant working atmosphere, a high degree of variety and a good work-life balance. On top of that, training opportunities, good career prospects and a competitive salary are also key factors. It’s a similar story with applicants from Generation Z (born between 1998 and 2016), as a study titled “Generation Z – the employees of tomorrow” (in German only) shows. For them, maintaining a healthy work-life balance is a top priority, too. This means offering more flexible working hours is one of the ways mechanical engineering companies can score points in the war for talent.

Four in every ten candidates from Generation Z will turn down a job offer if it doesn’t give them the option of working from home.

Being able to work from home is hugely important to job seekers from Generation Z. In fact, four in every ten candidates will turn down a job offer that doesn’t include that as an option. There are many jobs in the mechanical engineering sector that lend themselves to remote work. Design engineers, for example, can now theoretically carry out their tasks from any location thanks to digital engineering and online tools in general. For more than half of candidates from Generation Z, a sense of self-fulfilment and the knowledge that their job is meaningful are top priorities – a clear indication of the growing importance of New Work in mechanical engineering. Companies in this sector must therefore be ready for change if they hope to hold their own in the war for talent. It is not enough for senior executives to see these changes as mere concessions to the younger generations. Rather, they are a means of promoting employee satisfaction. By keeping this in mind, they can create something priceless at a time when skilled workers can afford to be picky – the foundations of a long-lasting employment relationship.

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