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Engineering the Engineers

Rolls-Royce Corp. recruits and employs some of the brightest engineering minds in the world. Constantly challenging them to acquire even more knowledge is a linchpin of its competitive strategy.

February 21, 2008
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Employee Career Development
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On the production floor at Rolls-Royce Corp.’s Indianapolis plant are some of the world’s most advanced engine-propulsion systems. In one way or another, most of the 4,500 people who work here help engineer and build turbines that are at once more compact and more powerful than the current state of the art. The high-tech engines contribute a sizable share of the $4 billion in North American revenue posted by Rolls-Royce Group, the Indianapolis firm’s British parent.

And the turbines also are a manifestation of the company’s chief assets: innovation and know-how that is nurtured and preserved by employees. The company sustains its finely honed competitive edge by viewing training as indistinguishable from recruiting and hiring, says Michael Trusty, the company’s director of talent management for North America.

At first glance, specialized corporate training for engineers might seem like overkill. Engineers are, after all, highly inquisitive and thrive on figuring new ways of doing things. How could any company improve on that?

It is, however, not that simple. Roughly 60 percent to 70 percent of all hiring in Indianapolis centers on recruitment of engineers, but not every person who holds an engineering degree meets Rolls-Royce’s exacting standards.

“We have to recruit the right types of people who can come in and do the work,” Trusty says. There aren’t many places that the company can find engineers familiar with building gas turbines.

Job candidates obviously need to display a mastery of engineering theories and practices, including strong “cognitive ability and the education to back it up,” Trusty says. But the company also has its antennae out for engineers who are leadership material.

“What we’re focusing on from a development standpoint is some of the softer stuff: the ability to lead, to work effectively in groups, and to create an environment that facilitates innovation,” Trusty says.

The focus on learning in Indianapolis mirrors Rolls-Royce Group’s global commitment to employee development. The British conglomerate spans four lines of business and employs nearly 40,000 people globally. Investments in training, education and professional development topped $58.4 million in 2006, the most recent year for which figures were available. According to a company financial statement released in February, Rolls-Royce Group has spent nearly $2.9 billion on assorted training regimens since 1998.

The Indianapolis operation is Rolls-Royce Group’s largest manufacturing site in North America. Although heavily populated with engineers, Rolls-Royce also employs certified electricians, millwrights, pipe fitters, tool and die makers, airframe mechanics and support staff. And while some large U.S. manufacturers are curtailing operations, Rolls-Royce is gearing up for accelerated demand, thanks largely to the buildup of America’s war machine.

The Department of Defense, already the company’s largest customer, is sending more business its way. The U.S. Air Force last summer awarded Rolls-Royce a pair of contracts worth a combined $315 million for research and development of “next-generation” aircraft engines. One $296 million contract is to design and develop a six-cylinder aerospace turbine that runs on a variable cycle: Some of its six cylinders can be removed when conserving fuel is an issue, but they can be reinserted when the aircraft needs an additional jolt of power.

Another $700 million in production work is headed to Indianapolis as part of a contract to produce engines for the V-22 aircraft used by the both the Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps. And 2008 also marks the final year of a $66 million maintenance contract to provide engine services for the U.S. Navy’s F405 engines.

Selection: vigorous and rigorous
Fulfilling those obligations, along with other contracts currently in hand, requires additional brainpower. Rolls-Royce has been on a hiring binge, adding about 200 newly minted engineers in recent months. Although Rolls-Royce does some midcareer recruiting of working engineers, most of the emphasis is on recent college graduates or undergraduates soon expected to join the labor force.

“It’s really all about taking somebody who has a good, solid engineering background and building on that foundation from an experiential standpoint. That’s how we develop their competencies,” Trusty says.

Up-and-coming engineers are targeted for “summer jobs” as part of cooperative agreements with top engineering colleges. Undergraduates and even grad students receive credit in exchange for tackling rotational assignments at Rolls-Royce.

The select group of “co-ops,” which is Rolls-Royce’s term for apprentices, takes time off from school to earn credits for on-the-job experience. Coaching is a keystone for success. To help them succeed, Rolls-Royce pairs budding engineers with veteran engine designers who serve as mentors and provide constructive feedback.

The company puts a lot of effort into onboarding so that co-ops get the right development and training, Trusty says. “Since they’re taking a quarter off from school to work for us, we want to make sure that each person is aligned with the right mentor or supervisor.”

Participants are on a fast track for development that often leads to job offers once the apprenticeship is complete. But they first have to pass through a tough vetting process.

As part of the multi-year assignment, an apprentice typically rotates to different jobs within the company. Aspiring engineers spend time gaining exposure to the individual components that make up the engine, including compressors, combustion systems, engine controls and materials. The “action learning” includes a stint in manufacturing, which enables them to understand how the various engine components are designed to function as an interdependent system, Trusty says.

All the while, the co-ops are being evaluated on their learning and performance. Although most apprenticeships extend over multiple years, candidates still have to prove they deserve to be invited back. In particular, each candidate must make an oral presentation summing up their experiences to an audience of top managers and design engineers.

“It’s not as formal as defending a thesis or dissertation, but it’s also not a layup,” Trusty says.

The veteran engineers, who are among the world’s foremost designers of aerospace engines, prod and challenge the co-ops to buttress any research claims with hard-and-fast analytical data. How well—or poorly—a person performs weighs heavily into whether they receive an invitation to continue their apprenticeship.

Yearning for learning
Engineers in Indianapolis also have a chance to pursue specialized research leading to fellowships. Run through the corporation’s functional leadership group in Great Britain, the program is aimed at engineers who want to immerse themselves in technical work rather than management.

Other programs are centered on those engineering professionals with an inclination toward leadership. Like many large companies, Rolls-Royce is preparing to deal with a rash of retirements during the next two decades. Trusty says finding engineers with leadership and managerial potential is important in staying abreast of the competition.

David E. Goldberg, the author of Life Skills and Leadership for Engineers, says the profession has been stereotyped as being full of people ill-suited to make the transition to business roles. He argues that the rapid pace of global business often blurs the lines between the roles that an engineer must play.

In fact, Goldberg says more and more engineers are deciding to buttress their technical training by pursuing master’s degrees in business.

Non-technical skills are increasingly important in a world made up of interdisciplinary teams, says Goldberg, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Through efforts such as the Early Career High Potential program, Rolls-Royce engineers like Michael Bredhold are expanding their professional horizons. Bredhold, a program manager for an engine-development program, says the training helped him to identify the skills he needs and sketch out a plan to improve his performance.

He polishes his managerial skills and learns how to galvanize teams of different workers. Taking on assignments beyond his job description taught him the importance of empathy—a trait considered crucial for managerial success.

“I enjoy the challenge of motivating a team to achieve a common objective. It is rewarding to help people identify their development needs or to help them solve difficult problems,” Bredhold says. “Being a manager requires an ability to recognize the needs of others, which makes me feel like I am contributing to something beyond my own career aspirations.”

Companies often grow frustrated when trying to coax leadership skills from engineers, says Elizabeth Lions, a Portland, Oregon-based recruiter and career consultant. Instead of trying to shoehorn free-thinking introverts into uncomfortable roles, Lions says it makes sense to recruit younger engineers from college who have “a lot of drive and good ideas” and groom them as leaders.

“Engineers are not natural business people and often don’t understand the correlation between product development and profits, which typically rears its ugly head midway through a project,” Lions says.

It is an observation not lost on Trusty, who says Rolls-Royce is investing time and resources to help engineers—particularly those newly hired out of college—understand the career paths available to them. To aid their managers, Rolls-Royce provides coaching resources that prescribe specific activities that enhance a person’s development.

Interviews with experienced engineers have pointed up some key development trends. One key finding thus far: There is no surer path to advancement than spending a few years as a test engineer. That job serves as a soup-to-nuts proving ground for learning about aerospace turbines.

“Whether they’re chief engineers, engineering fellow, or if they’ve moved into customer-facing leadership and program-director roles, many of them say their experience as a test engineer was a critical differentiator” for career advancement, Trusty says.

Ultimately, the responsibility for improvements rests with the engineers themselves. They are expected to identify their areas of weakness and meet periodically with their managers to hammer out “behavioral, prescriptive and actionable” learning plans.

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