Kids everywhere still dream of high-flying adventures that include jet airplanes, rocket ships and space travel. Unfortunately, not enough of them follow those dreams. The number of US graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines is consistently too low to meet the growing demand for these skills—and the shortage is particularly evident among scientists and design engineers. The Aerospace Industries Association estimates that approximately 70,000 engineers graduate in the United States each year, but only 44,000 of them are eligible for careers in aerospace.
At the same time, senior-level engineers are leaving the field at a faster clip. Retirement eligibility in the aerospace and defense (A&D) sector is growing at a rate of 1% to 2% annually and estimated to reach 18.5% in 2015. A&D human resources professionals like Boeing’s Kristen Gemeny find themselves among a widening field of competitors, fighting for a shrinking pool of talent to fill a growing number of vacancies.
“We’ve been fortunate that many people want to come to work here because of our products and because of their interest in aerospace,” says Gemeny, Boeing’s engineering workforce development and culture programs leader. Boeing is the world’s leading aerospace company and the largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft. It’s the prime contractor for the International Space Station and also designs and manufactures rotorcraft, electronic and defense systems, missiles, satellites, launch vehicles, and advanced information and communication systems.
“In the past, we could rely on that inherent interest to bring engineers to us,” Gemeny says. “We can’t depend on that anymore. We have to be really competitive with other aerospace and engineering firms and with software engineering firms. In many cases, we’re competing with companies like Google and Facebook—companies in other industries and with very different cultures.”
And the challenge doesn’t end with recruitment. PwC estimates that more than 45% of workers under age 35 plan to switch employers within the next five years. Once you bring talented new people into the fold, you have to work hard to keep them.
“We’re more high-touch in our recruiting efforts now, getting recruits excited about working for Boeing,” Gemeny says. “But then we have to deliver on that. When they arrive at Boeing, they need to have a great experience. That’s where I come in.”
Boeing puts the finishing touches on another of its renowned 747 aircraft.
Gemeny began her career in marketing and sales positions at Unisys and while working there she received a master’s degree in strategy and organization change from Pepperdine University. In 1997, she joined PwC as a principal consultant in the firm’s organization and change strategy practice. “I came to PwC because I thought it would be the fastest immersion into getting to do the work that I love to do,” Gemeny says. “That, along with the people and the significance of the projects drew me to the firm.”
Gemeny worked closely with large clients in the entertainment and technology sectors. She helped them manage through transformational changes such as mergers and acquisitions and, in one case, a complete overhaul of a client’s purchasing and sourcing functions. She came to Boeing in 2002, where she initially focused on leadership effectiveness, organizational design and change management before she moved into her current role leading engineering’s workforce development programs.
“Our overarching vision is to create opportunities for development, growth, networking, mentoring and also hands-on technical development experiences for all of our engineers,” Gemeny says. Bringing that vision to life begins with proactive, highly engaged recruitment. In the past few years, Boeing has stepped up its campus recruiting efforts, enhancing relationships with universities and presenting offers much earlier than it was once prepared to do.
“We changed our approach because of what we were hearing from colleges,” Gemeny says. “They said top talent would get offers as early as fall of their senior year, and they’d make decisions by December. So now, we’re giving offers on campus earlier.”
Boeing builds affinity among potential recruits by organizing matching events, where college students can interview with several different managers at the company. Recruits also get a chance to visit Boeing— taking tours, meeting current staff and learning about the different positions, career paths and support programs available to them.
“Before they accept the offer, they know exactly what they’re getting into, and they’ve even been able to interview for a few positions and select the one they want,” Gemeny says. “This makes our hiring process more efficient and creates better experiences for our future hires.”
When recruits join the Boeing team, Gemeny continues to nurture their connection to the company with programs that help build skills, form networks and chart a course for professional development.
In a survey of early career employees—those who have been with the company from zero to five years— Gemeny learned the top reasons these people decide to stay with Boeing: positive relationships with managers, opportunities for personal and professional growth, and challenging and meaningful work assignments.
“We know that early career engineers want to advance quickly,” Gemeny says. “We give them their first year to get acclimated—no distractions. They need time to understand the company, their own organization, the strategy they’re implementing and the statement of work they need to deliver on. But then, we don’t want them to get bored.”
Gemeny helps administer three of Boeing’s workforce programs designed to support employees and keep them engaged at different points in their tenure with the company. The first is an early career development program, which kicks in around an individual’s first anniversary. The program establishes a partnership with an assigned manager and also a functional manager to develop a plan for the employee’s future. The partnership helps new workers navigate the company’s various business units, programs, engineering disciplines and positions. It also provides the mentorship they need to understand which attributes they should work on developing and how they can make progress.
To help Boeing staff turn their plans into reality, Gemeny administers a technical mentoring program, which matches less experienced engineers with seasoned professionals. This program strengthens Boeing’s talent management approach in two ways: Newer workers get additional on-the-job mentoring and skill building, and the knowledge senior engineers have built over time stays within the company.
“Our products have such long life cycles—some of them are longer than anyone’s career can be,” Gemeny notes. “For example, a young engineer could have helped develop one of our planes right after joining the company; when they retire, that same product could still be in use, with Boeing providing service and support. That makes the transfer of technical knowledge from our senior people to the next generation crucial.”
Once employees have been with Boeing for several years, they benefit from a third program, which emphasizes engineering excellence and sets highachievers on a path forward. “We see the five- to seven-year mark as a time when engineering staff start to think about what direction they’re going to go for the long term,” Gemeny explains. “They might move in a technical direction, become a technical subject matter expert or join technical leadership. Or, they might choose to move toward management as a team lead, a manager or a program manager.”
Gemeny says each of the three career-path programs she’s helped establish align with and reinforce the broader culture at Boeing. They give people a chance to build internal networks, learn from each other and continually become better at what they do. “It’s friendly here, and it’s innovative,” she says. “People who work here love what they do. They love what we make. In our products and in our professional lives, there’s that level of commitment, and there’s a big focus on technical excellence and continuous improvement.”
Gemeny points out that efforts to draw engineering talent to Boeing and create an exceptional experience once they land at the company must be farreaching to succeed. Recruiting and retention programs are just the beginning. For example, making the early career partnerships and technical mentoring programs work requires more than just supporting the new recruits. Gemeny needs to find ways to support the managers and senior engineers as well. Not everyone is a natural mentor, and the daily demands of the job often dominate their focus.
We try to create an environment that’s conducive to the kind of mentoring we want to happen.
“It can be a challenge, because managers are recognized and rewarded based on delivering on their team’s statement of work,” Gemeny says. “Even though they know supporting early career employees is an important responsibility, they face a time crunch. We try to create an environment that’s conducive to the kind of mentoring we want to happen. We provide managers with tools and resources to make it as easy and effective as possible for them to develop partnerships and provide the guidance that makes the programs successful.”
Keeping younger employees happy and engaged also has implications beyond human resources programs. Gemeny says Boeing has created an internal social network that brings early career staff together to learn about each other and the company. Ideas like that set the tone for how people at Boeing work together, creating the collaborative atmosphere that younger workers often seek and also clearing pathways for knowledge to flow more freely. “The ideas of being more connected, more collaborative and more nimble are all related,” Gemeny says. “We can connect people with the subject matter experts who can help them so much more easily now. We’ve reduced what could have taken days to a matter of minutes, making it really easy to look up and find whoever you need in any of our different technical areas.”
Identifying opportunities for innovative programs and new ways to infuse engineering talent in Boeing’s ranks gives Gemeny a particular satisfaction. “I really enjoy being able to have a positive impact on an employee’s experience,” she says. “These are the people who sustain the products we have with customers today and who will design the products of tomorrow. Bringing in the right people, retaining them, promoting them and developing them is my way of having an impact on the future of this company.”