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How Smaller Companies Can Adapt to the Engineering Skills Shortfall by Recruiting Generalists

Written on 5/31/17

For most, the route into engineering involves choosing a specialism of some kind at the master’s degree stage or similar, though many will find that their true engineering education begins when they actually start their careers. A new graduate fresh out of training is only a “specialist” in a very nominal sense. Whilst their course may have contained content that alluded primarily to one area of expertise, it is the furnace of real world experience that will forge the skills of most engineers.

The typical civil engineering project will involve collaboration from structural engineers, civil engineers, control engineers, architects, project managers, planners, and a myriad of different specialities and disciplines. As with any real-world application of skill and expertise such as this, the roles within a given project are likely to be loosely defined when it comes to the fringes of a given specialisation, or likely to emerge serendipitously as different challenges arise.

Complexity and collaboration can blur the lines between specialists

Engineers in all disciplines can find themselves having to hop onto tasks that aren’t really affiliated with their ‘specialisation’. When the boss wants someone to fix the control valves, does the career minded structural engineer dig out some text books and learn some extra skills to rise to the challenge? Or complain it’s not within their remit?

Increasingly, the complexity and the multifaceted nature of modern engineering projects is blurring the lines between many specialised areas of expertise. For individual engineers who want to stay as hireable as possible (or even for those who just want to get the job done to avoid missing increasingly tough deadlines) it is proving beneficial to add more strings to their bows.

Generalists can prove very handy for smaller firms

There is an argument to be made that allowing creeping generalisation of the roles of an engineering is a mistake; that allowing roles to emerge or “work themselves out” at a company confuses decisions made that affect things like job titles or job descriptions, with knock-on effects for hiring and recruiting strategies, and that it’s far better to free up your specialists and allow them to flex their muscles only on the tasks that only they can do.

However, whilst this certainly can make a lot of sense (especially for massive engineering firms) there is nuance to this, especially in light of projected changes in the engineering demographic; with looming staffing shortages on the horizon there will also likely be, by extension, a lack of skills. There are a lot of retirements coming up, and not only are there less engineers arriving to replace them, but those engineers are going to be younger and have less experience. This future recruiting landscape has implications for the way that companies should seek to develop the careers of their engineering talent – towards having smaller, yet more flexible engineering workforces.

Generalists provide flexibility

Smaller firms may well find that the skills shortage is going to force them to develop new engineering hires as generalists, because it’s more likely that a new hire is going to have a narrower set of advanced skills. Because hiring a true specialist for every for aspect of a job that requires deeper know-how is likely to be outside the reach of a smaller firm’s staff budgets (where previously a smaller number of more experienced engineers would do the job), it would make more sense to focus on cross-training staff to develop expertise in a wider range of subjects.

Companies may find that generalists are better suited to the “bigger picture” of a project; it’s easier to understand the complexities of a system or a large project when your view of it isn’t deeply focused on a single area. Cross training staff can have benefits for your R&D, Project Management, Business Development and other areas. As senior staff come up for retirement, it can be very handy to have a talent pipeline of engineers with experience of as many different aspects of the overall picture as possible, especially for those all-important pitches, managing projects, etc.


Of course, not everyone wants to work as generalist. Equally, nobody can get by completely without the depth of knowledge that a true specialist brings. But for many firms, it’s easier to hire a consultant specialist to consult and advise on the earlier stages of a project’s development on a freelance basis than rely on having every area of specialisation covered in-house.

There is still time for companies to put measures in place to respond to the changes in the engineering recruitment landscape. Early investment in new talent and cross discipline training and development can pay dividends further down the line when senior team members come up for retirement. For smaller engineering firms, taking the time now to develop training and progression plans for the hires of the future can help to avoid suddenly losing a raft of multi skilled individuals.

Demographic changes are going to present engineering firms with a number of challenges; changes in hiring and training practises will need to form part of the response.