Hiring good engineers is achievable, if you think outside the box


13 October 2023

By Andrew Fleet Managing Director – Technical Recruitment Solutions

Thanks to advancing technology and Government policy, the heat pump market is taking off. That’s something I see in my own work as an HVAC recruitment specialist. In 2020, around 20% of my assignments involved heat pump engineers. Now it’s closer to 80%.

Of course, recruiting in this sector is not without its challenges. Employers tend to ask for heat pump engineers who are already trained, have X years’ experience and are ready to hit the ground running. Understandable, but in a relatively new field, potentially unattainable.

NASA faced a similar challenge in the late 1950s. They need to recruit space engineers with a skillset that didn’t exist. The answer was to recruit and develop people with transferrable skills and an appetite for discovery. It worked for them. It will work for employers now.

Broaden the net

As Chris Higgs, Managing Director of Freedom Heat Pumps told me, Heat Pump engineering thankfully, isn’t rocket science. The basics can be learned quickly if you’re someone with decent mechanical aptitude and the right attitude.

In his experience, and in mine, heat pump experience isn’t much of a factor in how someone will perform, provided they get the right induction, training and support.

For employers this means a slight change in mindset from simply placing an ad or briefing a consultant and then hoping for the best. It’s about deciding how they can best attract, develop and keep people with potential, long-term.

Candidate attraction

If you want to attract great people, you need to have your sales pitch tied down.

But look at the majority of ads on the main job boards and you’ll see that many default to the ‘we need / you should have’ approach.

Can you imagine a car ad telling you they needed customers and the driving qualifications you should have to buy from them?

When brief-taking, I often ask clients to imagine they have the ideal candidate as a captive audience in a lift and they have 25 seconds to tell them why they should come and work for the company. This is basically, if you’re lucky, what you’ll get with your job ad.

Avoid the platitudes. ‘We’re growing’, ‘we’re a market leader’, ‘we’re committed to (insert cliché here) won’t cut it. What are the demonstrable things you can offer your ideal candidate? The solid examples of what’s in it for them?

Maybe everything’s lined up and you just hadn’t expressed it before. Or maybe you need to think more deeply - about how you’re going to welcome, train, develop and ultimately keep excellent staff.

Opening up the talent pool through raining HVAC engineers can already see the writing on the wall for oil and gas. Heat pumps are the future. Many I talk to tell me they’d like to move into the sector, for career reasons or simply to do their bit for the climate.

This is where the industry and maybe government can play a role, by promoting and explaining the technology, and providing cross-training initiatives that make it simpler for people with potential to become qualified heat pump engineers.

Some organisations I work with are already pursuing this line, for example; by providing free online basic training in their products and technology. This allows people to get a feel for the technology and become confident/interested enough to apply for Heat Pump roles.

This is, of course, an investment which smaller companies might not be able to make. If that’s you and you’re an installer, consider approaching the manufacturers you work with, to see if you benefit from their training programmes.

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Treating job applicants like customers

I sometimes marvel at the hoops employers expect people to jump through to get a job. I’m talking about demanding detailed information and covering letters at first application stage, attendance at four interviews, and even a 3 or 4 week wait while a hiring decision is made.

Good candidates are busy people. You’re asking them to invest time in applying for your role. Many aren’t actively seeking a move. You might well be approaching them – so make the process simple. Do you really need a 500-word essay about why they’re perfect for you?

Similarly, don’t keep them waiting. I’ve seen occasions where employers have taken three weeks to give the good news, only to find another company has snapped the candidate up.

Keeping your people long-term

 Cross-training engineers from other sectors greatly expands the talent pool available to you, but doesn’t that just mean you’ll spend money on training people, who’ll then be poached by your competitors?

There are no guarantees, but younger people especially, in their 20s and 30s, tend to be attracted by companies that offer excellent training. The flip side of this is that they’ll likely ignore companies that have decided to save the training budget by poaching them.

And there are wider implications here. Your employees are more or less free to leave any time they like, which is why you need to think about how you can keep them long-term.

There are numerous reasons why employees stay or leave. It might be the boss’. Or the training. Or the career path. Or the quality of work. Or the flexibility, or otherwise, of working hours. Or about whether they feel consulted and appreciated.

These are mostly areas over which you can have some control, by developing your employment policies and practices. If you’re a great place to work people are more likely to stay. And if they do leave, they’ll be recommending your company to others.

Finding engineers: Some practical steps

If you’re in the market right now, there are some things you can do to stand out.

Use the job boards, but post compelling ads. If you’re willing to train engineers from other sectors, make the ad about that. Don’t bury the detail in paragraph 14. And remember, ads aren’t job descriptions. They just need a couple of good reasons to pick up the phone.

Think about LinkedIn. This is a massive jobs market. Make sure that your company profile is interesting and up-to-date. If you can, include some employment related details. And post when you can, about contract wins, industry awards and your teams.

There are going to be times when only heat pump experience will do, say in a senior technical role. You’ll find potential candidates on LinkedIn you can approach, but this is where your profile, reputation and messaging will really count.

An intermediary (it doesn’t have to be me) could well help if you’re not well known, but go for a consultancy that specialises in the heat pump field or at least HVAC. They’ll have the best contacts and brand recognition.

Above all, treat hiring like sales and marketing. Make it easy for the person to apply, maintain excellent communication, keep the number of interviews sensible, and move quickly and efficiently through to offer stage.