By Stephanie Borchers and Rachel Cohen
On a firm-by-firm basis, understanding how to encourage and maintain employee engagement is central to increasing retention. Employees of all levels contribute to forming a company culture that may or may not encourage engagement.
First, what is engagement? As SEAONC SE3 #ChangeXSE3 Symposium keynote speaker Dr. Zinta Byrne noted in her presentation, engagement is not simply satisfaction or the opposite of burnout. Engagement means finding meaning in one’s work, feeling energized by one’s daily tasks, and motivated to contribute to the success of the firm and to accomplish long-term goals.
Firm leaders and managers play a big role in the engagement of their less experienced employees. According to a report on retention by TINYpulse, employees who are unsatisfied with their supervisors are four times more likely to quit than those who rate their supervisors highly . Leaders can encourage engagement through tangible actions - such as providing bonuses to reward performance, or investing money and resources into training employees - as well through making conscious choices around how they interact with their colleagues.
Simin Nasseh, CEO of Forell/Elsesser and participant in our 2019 Symposium panel discussion, stresses the importance of creating a two-way, meaningful individual relationships with her staff members. Employees who feel that their firms are invested in their personal career development, and who feel recognized and valued for their work, are more likely to stay engaged - and those who are engaged are 59% more likely to continue working at the same organization for the next 12 months . Additionally, transparency throughout all levels about firm practices and performance provides individuals with a sense of how their role contributes to the success of the company as a whole, which helps each engineer find meaning in their work. Symposium Panelist Jami Lorenz of DCI engineers expressed the need for transparency and communication, and urged managers to provide constant feedback, rather than confining feedback to a once-a-year review. This should be a two way street - employees also want a way to provide upward feedback, and to know that their opinions are important.
Those who have left the industry hold key information regarding what engineers can do to improve retention. Several firm leaders involved in our 2019 SE3 Symposium Panel, including Peter Lee of SOM, noted the value of exit interviews. It is recommended that an HR professional, who may have a more objective perspective, perform these interviews and bring ideas back to the firm regarding staff engagement, health and wellness, and strategic growth.
Individuals choose to leave structural engineering for a wide variety of reasons. In general, people change jobs when they are dissatisfied with their current position, feel their pay is not reflective of their performance level or unfair relative to their peers, or when prompted by significant changes in their personal lives. Similar to many other industries, women and people of color are particularly likely to leave the profession due to the factors cited. These groups face unique challenges, such as implicit bias in the workplace, lack of representation among leadership, and a confidence gap that impacts their persistence in working towards leadership positions. NCSEA SE3’s 2018 Survey data backs this up - Asian and Black respondents were 9% and 20% more likely to be “very dissatisfied” with their career, and 68% of women had considered leaving the profession, compared with 55% of men.
The increasing issue of employee retention is not just present in the structural engineering industry. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employee only remains at a firm for 4.4 years . For the workforce’s youngest employees, the expected tenure is half of that. One explanation for this drop off is the current strength of the U.S. economy - job openings are exceeding the number of hires, and workers are able to find better opportunities. This has created a power shift from employers to employees.
The shift could also be credited to the changing workforce. Millennials have recently become the largest generation in the US workforce. According to a survey conducted by Future Workplace, 91% of millennials expect to stay at their job for less than 3 years . Younger workers tend to have fewer obligations tying them down, and are more willing to bounce around between different firms or career alternatives. Some view job-hopping as a quicker way to advance one’s career. Additionally, advancements in technology have helped make finding and applying for new jobs easier.
With these factors at play, managers’ awareness of the environment they are creating and the messages they are sending their staff are crucial. Each area of an employer-employee relationship requires attention, and strategies can be applied to improve employee engagement and retention. This should start with the onboarding process, where new staff learns about the company culture and how they can contribute to it. According to TINYpulse, employees are 23% more likely to stay if they have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Jami Lorenz recommends clearly giving younger employees the “license to make mistakes” which translates to their empowerment in speaking up and getting involved. Symposium Panelist Allen Nudel of Forell/Elsesser Engineers echoed these sentiments, stressing the importance of a culture where admitting ones strengths and weaknesses is accepted, and where less-experienced staff feel comfortable asking for help.
Employee engagement and retention is vital to firm success and to the prosperity of our industry as a whole. Creating strategies to promote engagement, and adapting these strategies as employees’ priorities shift over time, is a highly important task for those in management positions. Beyond management, every individual has the ability to influence and improve the culture of their company. Engineers of all levels should be encouraged to share constructive feedback about areas of their career development where they may be seeking more company support.
What will you do to contribute to your firm’s prosperity? For further reading on practices that encourage retention, check out this article.
Rachel Cohen and Stephanie Borchers from Forell/Elsesser Engineers are co-leading the committee focused on promoting SE3 initiatives and events, recruiting new committee members, and engaging the national community regarding SE3’s mission.
The SEAONC SE3 Committee