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The Flight Risk of GenX Engineers

This series of posts covers a number of issues related to the differences in generations specifically in engineering organizations. Today’s post looks at the mindset of Gen X’ers and puts it into the context of today’s engineering organizations. The conclusion is that, without some HR changes, the Gen X engineer may become a rare natural resource in the workforce.

Remember when the term ‘Gen X’ was coined? For me, I first remember hearing about it when the grunge music scene was emerging from Seattle in the early 90’s. As part of that generation, I remember we were young and cool. But over the past twenty years, lots has changed.

To get some perspective on what the Gen X mindset looks like in a professional environment, I’m going to turn back to Tammy Erickson at the Harvard Business Review (HBR) again. Across a lot of blog posts and publications, things aren’t so mixed bag for Gen X. They’re sandwiched between two much larger (in terms of volume) generational cohorts, the Boomers and Gen Y, leading to a lot of dissatisfaction. However, they exhibit the sort of characteristics that engineering organizations need the most right now to bolster economic recovery through new product development. Here’s a quick excerpt from one post, Career Advice for Generation X, that puts it pretty succinctly.

The dissatisfaction is easy to see. You stepped out of university when the economy was slow, and the Boomers already had a death grip on all the good positions before your job search even started. Now, just as Boomers are preparing to retire (to second careers, most likely) and the top slots seemed poised to open up, the economy is weak again. Not to mention, you’re facing competition from the very people you’re managing–Gen Y workers outnumber you, seem to enjoy better mentoring relationships with your Boomer supervisors, and frustrate you with their penchant for playing loose and fast with protocol and company norms.

But corporations really do need you. Your skills, passions, and talents are well-suited to the challenges of business today. As a generation of latch-key kids, you bring self-reliance, resourcefulness, and a certain measure of seriousness to the table. As the children of civil and women’s rights protesters, you are sensitive to multicultural issues and tolerant of diversity. As the consumers and creators of the DIY ethic (punk and alternative music and art), you are entrepreneurial and unconventional — traits that are critical for growing organizations.

For those of you wanting more context from Tammy at HBR, here’s more posts related to Gen X and their plight: Thanks to Gen Xers for the Reality Check, Why Generation X Has the Leaders We Need Now and Stuck in the Middle: How Generation X Can Survive the Boomer- Gen Y Love Fest, 10 Reasons Gen Xers Are Unhappy at Work.

Now you might ask yourself: so what? How is this related to engineering? Well, here’s the problem. If you remember from the last post in this series on The Braindrain Threat from Boomer Engineer Retirement, there’s already a going to be a shortage of senior engineering staff when the Boomers do eventually decide to retire. Sooner or later, even though they are the smallest generational cohort in engineering, those from Gen X will be the senior technical leaders in your engineering organization. High levels of dissatisfaction lead to edgy employees looking for the first real opportunity to leave the organization. I’ve actually heard it first hand time and time again. And with the economy officially over and some other engineering organizations looking to hire again, that opportunity might be more available than you think. Combine the dissatisfaction with new job opportunities related to the recovery and you might lose the most senior engineers that are queued up behind the boomers. Suddenly, you could find that the most senior engineering staff in the company are Gen Y engineers or new hire Gen X engineers you just desperately hired yourself. That’s the last thing you need to drive a recovery off new product development.

What do you do about it? In addition to good context, Tammy Erickson offers some good advice too (Career Decisions and Generation X). But it’s the touchy-feely stuff that is infrequently associated with engineering organizations. But I’d advise serious consideration of changes just like these to hold on to what might well become a rare natural resource in the workforce: the Gen X engineer.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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