How to assess top talent when recruiting for key manufacturing roles

Young man in interview with mature womanAs your business continues to grow and evolve, gaps in talent can start to appear. And whilst growth is often seen as a sign of success if you fail to manage growth correctly, it can quickly turn and bite you in a similar way to a business in decline.

It’s widely reported that there is a growing skills gap in the manufacturing and engineering sector. And with unemployment levels continuing to fall, it’s important now more than ever to attract, and then retain these skills, if your business is to move forward.

So, you need a clear plan and a robust process to help assess any new talent you might be considering bringing into your organisation. And the more demanding the role, the more complex and crucial this process is likely to be.

In this blog post, we look at ways in which you can attract top talent to your company. We then dig further into the assessment process itself and look at how you might want to ‘stress test’ this process to make sure the candidates in front of you really are the right fit for your business.

How can I attract manufacturing and engineering professionals to my business?

Clearly, much depends on the role but if you are looking to attract talent in this day and age you need a strong digital ‘presence’. Like any modern marketing strategy, you need to make sure you are ‘found’ when people start looking, regardless of whether they initiated the search themselves or a headhunter introduced them to you. And when they find you it’s important they get to see who you are and what you stand for quickly, otherwise, they’ll move on to someone else.

Starting with your website, you need to make sure that you have a well thought out careers page. This page should focus on your company culture and what you can offer as a business. It should also provide a good insight into your recruitment process so that potential candidates have a clear understanding of what to expect should they make the next move.

You might also want to consider including details of any training schemes your business offers, for example, apprenticeships, placement schemes or graduate programmes. Whilst these schemes may not be relevant to the candidate you are currently trying to attract, they help demonstrate your commitment to talent development right across the business and how you are helping to reduce the current skills gap in engineering and manufacturing. Staff testimonials across a range of departments are also a great way of helping to bring your careers page and company culture to life.

In addition to your website, you need to make sure that your company and key staff members have a digital ‘presence’ across a range of social media channels and we recommend your main focus here is LinkedIn. With over 500 million members, the self-described ‘employment-oriented social networking service’ not only offers companies unprecedented access to talent it also acts as a powerful publishing and brand awareness platform. Building up a strong business network and then using it to promote your business and your culture is vital in attracting top talent in today’s socially connected world.

The role of the headhunter

For higher level positions, such as senior management or board level positions it’s likely that you will want to engage with a headhunter and deploy a much more targeted campaign. Establishing a relationship with a headhunter can offer an effective solution compared to ‘going it alone’ but you can’t just outsource this function entirely. For example, you will still need to have agreed internally on the key elements of the person specification along with the roles and responsibilities before asking a third party to start conducting a search.

A good headhunter will, however, be able to give you guidance on what information you need to include in your job description and person specification. After all, they have years of experience and access to a large talent ‘pool’ and will, therefore, know what a good or bad offer from an employer looks like. Realistically, you should allow between a week and ten days to put together your job specification. This does rely on having a lead author on your team who is responsible for drafting and editing the document, before passing it over to the rest of the management team to review and sign off.

Of course, you can try and recruit yourselves and keep everything ‘in-house’ but you will need a dedicated team with a strong HR lead at the top. You will also need to allow sufficient time and effort in order to carry out the initial research, work through all the CVs and then conduct a series of interviews. But have you really got the time and skills internally to do this? And if you have, what business opportunities are at risk whilst your efforts are focussed elsewhere?

What might the process look like?

It’s likely you already have an established recruitment process in place. You may even have a partnership with a headhunter you trust. However, if you don’t, or you need to refine your process going forward, here are some logical and realistic steps to work through. 

  • Identify the gap. Have you actually got a need? What has been the trigger? Does the skills gap need a new hire or would re-training your existing staff solve the problem? And crucially, do all board members agree?
  • Scope the role. What key elements make up the role? What type of person are you looking for? How will this role impact your current structure?
  • Find a headhunter. If you don’t currently have one approved, you will need to conduct your own research and typically this will be via the web or working on recommendations made by other business owners you know. It’s important to find a partner that you can trust and you should look to gain a good understanding of the fee structure, and negotiate your deal in advance.
  • Submit the role. Once you have established a relationship with a suitable provider you can send them the details of the role. Be open and honest and seek feedback from them i.e. ‘this is what we think we want and the remuneration package we are prepared to offer but what do you think?’ It’s better to find out early on if you are trying to find a ‘unicorn’ rather than go through several rounds of interviews and headhunter fees!
  • Edit and resubmit. Depending on the feedback you receive you may need to amend the role, agree the revisions with your team, and resubmit it to the headhunter before a search takes place.
  • Begin the search. Once the role has been reviewed, amended (where necessary) and signed off by the board it’s time to let the headhunter conduct their search. At this stage you’ll want to understand the timings involved in the search to make sure a) they fit your own requirements and b) they are realistic from the headhunters perspective.
  • Review progress. The best headhunters will present you with a progress report during the search stage. This report is likely to include activity levels i.e. the number of searches conducted, the number of conversations that have taken place etc. along with the type of results they are achieving, the calibre of potential candidates they have found and how close they feel they are in achieving their goal i.e. coming up with a suitable shortlist.
  • Refine the shortlist. Once the headhunters have completed their search they should present you with a shortlist of suitable candidates to review. At this stage, you may decide to narrow the shortlist down further based on your own experiences.
  • Assess the talent. Armed with your shortlist you can start conducting the first round of interviews.

Assessing the talent the headhunters have found

We recommend you have at least two clearly defined stages in your interview process. You will also need a structured review/scoring system to record the results in order to keep your entire process objective and consistent. Before you start the process it’s important to be clear internally on what you consider a ‘must have’ or a ‘nice to have’ personality or technical trait. And finally, what are your ‘red flags’? What answers to questions or behavioural types simply won’t fit in with the culture of your company?

Stage 1

The first stage of the interview process will typically use competency based questions and could last anywhere between two and three hours depending on the position being offered. The purpose of this first interview is really for the candidate to convince you that they are technically competent to fulfill the role. After all, if they are not, there is not much point in moving onto the second stage!   

Stage 2

The second stage can then focus more on the ‘softer’ side of things, specifically cultural ‘fit’. You might decide to host an assessment day and invite other heads of department to meet the candidate. Any process you implement should remain two way as it’s important the candidate can use it to assess you as a potential employer as much as you will want to assess them as a potential new employee. This is particularly relevant if you have involved headhunters in the search as you are attempting to attract what appear to be ‘happy’/satisfied employees away from their current workplace.

There should be a clear plan laid out for the day and this will need communicating to the candidate. Again, you will want to tailor the assessment day to your own business but some logical steps may include:

  • An initial meeting with the board of directors.
  • A tour of the factory so that the candidate can really visualise exactly what you do, the processes involved and how internal departments link and work together.
  • A series of one-to-one sessions with other department heads followed by a collective get together over lunch.
  • A debrief session between the department heads and the board of directors to feedback on their thoughts so far and what they have learned. This could take place in tandem with the candidate putting their own thoughts together on what they have learned so far about the company and culture.
  • A summary meeting between the candidate and board of directors which can be used to raise and answer any questions either party may have.

Go, no go?

Now it’s decision time! If you like what you have seen and heard and you are confident that the candidate is technically competent in carrying out the role then chances are you will be looking to make an offer. Typically this will involve you working in conjunction with the headhunter to help support and negotiate the final remuneration package and start date. 

If, however, your decision is not to proceed then quite often the headhunter will feed this back to the candidate on your behalf. It’s important at this stage to take stock and review. It’s certainly a brave decision to say no to a candidate, particularly if the process has taken place over a long period of time. The momentum can build quickly, but whilst it might be hard to say no, if your process is robust enough it should fail ‘safe’. And remember, there’s never the right time to employ the wrong person!

If there are no changes that need making to the person specification or the job description then a decent headhunter should offer to run the search again for you free of charge. If minor tweaks are needed, there may be additional fees, although you would hope that these would be offered at a discounted rate to you.

Hopefully, this blog post has highlighted a number of ways in which you can attract top talent to your company and how best to then assess the candidates you find in front of you. The process itself can be complex, time-consuming and expensive. But failing to put in place robust ‘checks and balances’ up front and taking on a new hire that turns out to be bad for your business is worse.

Much worse. 

I’m sure we all have good and bad examples to share when it comes to the recruitment process. If you have a system you are particularly proud of and it has delivered effective results for your company we would love to hear more about it in the comments section below.

Executive Guide to Outsourcing Your Electronics Manufacturing

Written by Chris Johnson

Chris is a business consultant with an extensive career spanning over 30 years. During this time Chris has set up, led, and acquired highly successful component distribution and EMS companies including Paragon Electronics and JJS Manufacturing. A committed 'petrol head' with a passion for speed, Chris raced for over 20 years in a variety of motor racing classes including Formula Ford, Caterham’s and historic sports cars. Today whilst still enjoying the occasional track day Chris spends his spare time playing golf, sailing, mountain biking and supporting Junior Rugby. Chris is a qualified RYA dinghy instructor, Rugby Coach, referee and former School Governor.