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Take Two - Managing the Careers of Technical Specialists

Take Two - Managing the Careers of Technical Specialists

Copyright © 2006 Marion Stone
Used with permission of the author:
Author: Marion Stone
Cornerstone Connections
20 April 2007

Back to ... Workinfo.com Human Resources Magazine Volume 1 Issue 8, 2007

Hayley, one of your graduate accountants, has just resigned after only 18 months service. She may not be the most experienced in the company, but you can barely keep graduate trainees long enough to get a return on the investment of recruiting and training them. And the time that you will need to spend to find a replacement for her doesn’t bear thinking about …

The growth of the economy and the challenges of the BEE scorecard mean that South African business is starting to feel the impact of skills shortages in specific sectors. Organisations have often referred to ‘people being our greatest asset’ but never has it been quite so true as in today’s environment.

For many years now, organisations have fought their competitors on the battleground of efficiency and the tight control of resources. Now that efficiency has become more of a given, competitiveness rests on being effective, which is about working smarter through your people. As a result, the engaging and retaining of your skilled and talented employees has become an important strategic consideration because it affects your competitiveness as an organisation. Organisations will need to take things a step further than just quoting the platitude ‘people are our greatest asset’.

Why do they leave?

Organisations need to find a way to find a way to engage their employees to retain them since engagement is a measure of commitment to the organisation. A CLC study showed that employees who are engaged perform 20% better and are 87% less likely to leave the organisation.1

The reasons for leaving an organisation will be varied and personal to individuals but the same study showed that key contributing factors include feeling a lack of connection to the organisation. Connection is achieved by making sure that individuals understand how their work contributes to the organisation’s success and by providing career development opportunities.

How do we keep them?

In the past, opportunities would come with time as employees moved incrementally up the career ladder. Associated with each move would be increases in responsibility and reward. This pattern is not a given in today’s environment where organisational structures are flatter and rates of change mean that the position you are targeting today may be gone tomorrow.

Opportunities for technical specialists can be even more restricted because their skills are not easily transferable to other business functions. They become specialists because they enjoy their chosen area of expertise and will look for opportunities to be rewarded and recognised for the depth of their knowledge.

Consider Mike, a senior engineer who is performing well enough to be offered a managerial role, but who chooses to stick with his area of expertise. Within a couple of years he is watching colleagues who started at the same time as him and who opted for the managerial route earning considerably more than he is.

What lesson does Mike take from this? Clearly the organisation values managerial skills more than technical skills.

So often technical specialists take the management route because they see no alternatives. This produces managers that resent having to deal with ‘people issues’, which take them away from what they actually like doing – the technical stuff! High levels of dissatisfaction in these cases result in high turnover.

So, what are the alternatives? Some possibilities include:

  1. Dual Career Paths

  2. Projects and Relocation

  3. Position Creation

Dual Career Paths

Dual career paths allow technical specialists to progress through the organisation without giving up contact with their field of expertise. Ideally there should be an option to choose one of two career paths – the one technical and the other managerial. The career paths need to be of equal length and should run parallel in terms of seniority, reward and other benefits.

Projects and Relocation

Technical specialists can act as advisors and mentors on projects where they stand to develop a broader understanding of the business. Others on the project will gain additional technical skills through the mentorship of the specialist.

Another possibility is relocating specialists between divisions so that they get to practice their skills in a different environment. Or create an interdisciplinary group to generate some creative thinking. If you always recruited chemical engineers, why not add a chemist or a physicist to the mix?

Position Creation

If an organisation has a particularly talented technical specialist, why not consider creating a position that plays to their strengths? Consider internal consultant or strategic advisor roles. This works most effectively when the technical specialist has reasonably well developed competencies and interpersonal skills.

How do we support them?

Underpinning these strategies is the organisation’s responsibility to help technical specialists to understand and work with their own career. The way in which this is done is through career coaching or career development workshops. The purpose of such interventions is to help them plan their career through being clearer as what their own values, skills and interests are and then matching them with organisational opportunities. This way, technical specialists are equipped to take charge of their career, which gives them a greater sense of control.

A career development process includes 3 important stages:

  • Self-Assessment

  • Innovation

  • Impact


The core questions to ask at this stage are –
Who am I? Where am I now?
This is a reflective stage where motivations, interests and skills are examined.

Self-assessment provides essential information about what is important and interesting to individuals and will help them to assess whether career opportunities are appropriate


The core questions to ask at this stage are –
Where am I going? Where do I want to be?
This is a visualisation stage where individuals describe what they want for their life and career.


The core questions to ask at this stage are –
How will I get there? Am I achieving my goals?
This is essentially a planning stage where goals and plans to achieve these goals are shaped to ensure that individuals remain focussed and take proactive steps to reach their goals. This limits reactive career decisions.

The career development approach equips technical specialists to make conscious career choices. It does not work in splendid isolation however and organisations must ensure that line managers are equipped to support the process.

Other support tools and processes like job boards, mentoring and feedback are also essential in maintaining momentum.

The rewards of investing time in a retention strategy for technical BYT’s are obvious. Just think again as to how much time and effort will go into replacing Hayley….

1 "Driving Performance and Retention through Employee Engagement", Corporate Leadership Council, 2004

Marion Stoneis an experienced training and development consultant with over 10 years of experience both nationally and internationally. Her comprehensive understanding of training strategy and practice has been acquired in various sectors including manufacturing, FMCG, construction, media and travel. Her work has focused predominantly on middle managers although she has worked with various levels within the business from the shop floor to senior managers. Marion holds a first degree in chemistry (UCT) and an MSc in Strategic Training and Development (University of Surrey Roehampton ). She is accredited by the South African Board of Personnel Practitioners as a Chartered HR Practitioner. Her diverse background ensures a practical approach to development activities that are joined up with organisational goals and processes.She can be contacted at marion@cornerstoneconnections.co.za.For regular newsletters from Marion click on 'Subscribe to newsletter' onwww.cornerstoneconnections.co.za.

Cornerstone Connectionsbuilds connections between the organisation and it’s employees and between managers and their teams. Consultancy and training are offered in the areas of:

  • Talent retention

  • Personal and career development

  • Performance management

  • Coaching and feedback

  • Team effectiveness

Short description
The growth of the economy and the challenges of the BEE scorecard mean that South African business is starting to feel the impact of skills shortages in specific sectors. Organisations have often referred to ‘people being our greatest asset’ but never has it been quite so true as in today’s environment.

Keywords and relevant phrases
Commitment, competitiveness, dual career path, engagement, human resource, impact, innovation, position creation, project, recruitment, relocation, retention, self-assessment, support, training.

Back to ... Workinfo.com Human Resources Magazine Volume 1 Issue 8, 2007

Back to ... People Challenges in SMME Organisations in 2007 by Marion Stone

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


C: +27 (0)82 416 7712

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