The last decade has seen considerable concern regarding a shortage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers to meet the demands of the market. Economic projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade if the country is to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology (Source: President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology). While a lot is being said and done to bridge this talent gap by strengthening academia, companies in the private sector are still facing the challenges on a daily basis. A much-discussed topic from the past has come to the forefront due to this talent imbalance- Dual career tracks and managing them in a sustainable manner!
Does no one want to be a ‘Manager’ anymore?
Wrong! Not only are managerial skills more critical today, there are very good managers who genuinely want to be people managers, are good at it and poised to be future business leaders. The issue is -they are in short supply, giving rise to competing forces in the marketplace. In the meantime, the mixed message of ‘the managerial path is the only way up’ has led to confusion, disillusionment and failed expectations for employees who have more of a technical bent. A number of technical experts have little to no interest in being people managers and in venturing down that path have been unhappy as have their teams. This set is becoming more vocal in seeking alternate career paths where they can stay focused on the hard (technical) skills even though the truth is that softer skills (cross-functional collaboration, agility, influence) actually make a technical expert more impactful.
Beat the ‘Bulge’ and prevent ‘Choke Points’: Let us analyze how companies are responding to that by opening up technical career tracks for individual contributors, removing their direct people responsibilities and allowing them to focus on their craft, technology or science. Clear steps are articulated, titles deliberated and compensation defined to make sure both paths feel valued enough. The design along this is most often done well with skills, experiences and responsibilities clearly outlined. The biggest ‘watch out’ however is ‘grade creep’ wherein fearing talent loss, governance processes are not adhered to and the slow creep allows mediocre talent to rise to the top and in no time there is yet another choke point where people cannot move up because there is a bulge. When these gateways are opened up like any pipeline, the key to keep the fluid from gushing out is to have the valves functioning and the talent flow steady, else every few years there will be new pressure to open up yet more headroom on the ladder.
Reserve the ‘cool or complex’ projects for genuine high potentials: Technical experts are motivated by the depth of their science. Money is now a common denominator but no longer the competitive advantage as people seek a greater purpose in what they are doing, working with the latest technology or the most complex molecule in drug development. Being part of the movement and a contributing force to building a new drug, an app or a product is where they draw their energy hence it can be a very powerful tool to recognize good talent. Where things can go wrong is if the allocation of these projects or visibility to senior leadership gets diluted by allowing entry to anyone other than a high potential person minted through a strong talent review process.
Early Career Rotation: There can be a perceived internal ‘snob value’ in being on a true STEM track as an expert research scientist or software engineer and lateral movements get perceived as a step down than a stepping stone. While individuals should certainly be allowed to pursue their interest, there is a tremendous amount of individual and organizational value to be gained by broadening people’s exposure through rotations in other functions, the earlier, the better. Yet, often times they are left alone for fear of talent loss. Those organizations that are bold enough to rotate their technical talent through multiple broadening opportunities are likely to gain in the long run with experts able to apply their thinking more strategically and laterally and strong business leaders.
In closing, the STEM talent challenge has many different angles. As companies deal with strategies to retain their technical talent a careful balancing act and some bold measures are necessary that do not just take care of the needs of employees but actually to put rich anchors in place that ultimately enhance their talent brand.