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The fight for engineers

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Greg Blackman asks machine vision firms what strategies they employ when hiring staff

A common problem among many machine vision companies is recruiting qualified engineers.

Machine vision is a specialist branch of engineering that encompasses multiple disciplines – optics, software, electronics, automation are all desirable qualities. The very nature of industrial vision, therefore, can make it difficult to find technical staff.

Couple this with the general shortage of engineers, blue-chip firms snapping up the most promising graduates, and a need for commercial skills alongside technical ones are all challenges the relatively niche machine vision sector is faced with.

Julia Börries, HR consultant at Basler, commented: ‘An increasing shortage on the labour market is definitely noticeable, especially [for] in-demand, but rarely available, technical experts or specialists from IT, engineering or software development.’

Basler has 808 full-time equivalent members of staff as of 30 June (it had 570 employees at the same time last year, although some of this growth is by acquisition). The company runs vocational training programmes and internships at its site in Ahrensburg, in Germany, as well as integrated degree programmes, with academic theory being taught at Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences, as well as hands-on training conducted at Balser.

Börries added that, generally speaking, senior roles are harder to fill than junior roles, as they are more complex roles that require a skillset from different disciplines, such as a combination of technical and commercial skills.

At the time of writing, Bitflow, based in Boston, USA, is in the process of hiring an application engineer and a hardware test engineer. Donal Waide, director of sales at Bitflow, said that a common issue facing the company is that ‘the best and the brightest graduates’ tend to be hired by the Boston offices of companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon – ‘there’s a reason most of these companies are a stone’s throw from MIT,’ he said.

Benjamin Lehmann, human resources business partner at camera maker Allied Vision, also noted that higher salaries, which can only be paid by blue-chip companies, is one challenge Allied Vision faces when hiring staff.

In terms of direct competition from other machine vision firms, Waide listed Cognex and MathWorks as two competitors. ‘As a smaller company it’s a unique environment [at Bitflow] and a lot more personal interaction than some of the larger companies,’ he said. ‘This does affect the type of candidate you wish to hire, or who wants to work there.

‘Machine vision is a tiny part of computer engineering,’ Waide continued, ‘and while it’s a growing industry – vision is in more and more applications daily – a lot of companies tend not to hire a machine vision engineer, but instead convert an internal engineer to deal with the vision component of their system. This isn’t always a good fit as the engineer may be a good programmer, but not so solid in other aspects, or vice versa. The result can be a negative one for the company, the engineer and the machine vision companies they are working with.’

He said that the AIA course on certifying engineers in machine vision is a good first step, but industry awareness and education must be an ongoing process to ensure that companies are able to hire engineers who are as passionate about machine vision, as the ones already working in the industry.

Mark Williamson, managing director of Stemmer Imaging UK, said the company looks for staff graduating from university, as the pool of talented people specifically with machine vision experience is small. He added, however, that even when recruiting directly from university, there is still a lack of people wanting to embark on careers in engineering. ‘The real needle in a haystack is engineers with good interpersonal and commercial awareness,’ he remarked.

‘There is a strong culture here of hiring from university and growing the skills internally,’ Williamson said. In Germany, Stemmer Imaging tends to manage the recruitment process internally, as the number of vacancies justifies the resources needed. In the local offices, however, the firm uses agencies and head hunters, as well as the internet resources.

Stemmer Imaging UK runs a STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – day each year at a local school in conjunction with PPMA Best, a UK charity promoting engineering (Danny Reed from PPMA Best writes about the charity’s work on page 22). Stemmer Imaging staff run an engineering competition at the school, and the winner is invited to visit Stemmer Imaging’s offices and try out working with vision systems.

‘We all need to be engaging and promoting STEM in schools to inspire young people to follow a career in our industry,’ Williamson said.

In Germany, the company has a similar concept to the Stemmer Foundation, which was started and is now run by Wilheim Stemmer, founder of the company, again to promote careers in engineering in local schools.

‘I have direct evidence that it works,’ Williamson said. ‘One Stemmer member of staff saw a foundation day at their child’s local school and thought “that is a great company to work for, giving so much back to the local community”, and actively approached Stemmer for work. These events really do help to get good staff.’

University courses on computer vision and image processing are out there, as are those on optical and electrical engineering. Siemens UK launched an undergraduate sponsorship programme in the summer of 2019 to nurture the next generation of engineers. The programme is a partnership between Siemens, the University of Sheffield and Newcastle University, with Siemens paying selected students £3,000 a year from the second year of university, and giving them the chance to join Siemens’ graduate scheme after their degree programme. The sponsorship programme offers undergraduates a practical, collaborative space to explore Industry 4.0 technologies and put what they learn at university into real-world use.

Robot vision and 3D imaging firm Photoneo, based in Bratislava, Slovakia, looks for job candidates at universities, among other sources. Ivette Lesundakova, Photoneo’s director of HR, feels that the number of graduates in fields relevant to Photoneo is increasing. She said, however, that ‘our segment is rather unique and consequently it is not an easy task to find relevant candidates’.

Photoneo prizes roboticists and experts in C++, Python, machine learning and machine vision when recruiting.

‘Nowadays, young people are hungry for interesting opportunities which support not only their personal and professional development, but where they can also see that their work brings results and has a real impact on the company’s success,’ Lesundakova said.

Tapio Kallonen, CEO of spectral imaging firm Specim, believes that the machine vision industry needs to foster close co-operation with universities, to get students ‘onboard and interested in technology at an early stage; actively promote machine vision-based solutions; and actively promote machine vision companies and career opportunities.’

Kallonen noted that Specim, based in Finland, has found recruiting staff ‘quite easy’ in most cases, although he added that it’s been difficult to find good software developers with machine vision knowledge and experience.

Basler uses a variety of online and offline channels to look for new talent, including long-established partnerships with universities and schools, as well as a close collaboration with external recruitment agencies, according to Börries.

From her perspective, ‘the job market has turned into an applicant-driven market where tech companies compete for good candidates ... by [advertising] their company benefits, development opportunities, corporate culture, market position or new technologies to attract new candidates.’

She emphasised cultivating a reputation as an attractive employer as a successful factor for attracting good staff. ‘When looking for a new job, engineers, and developers in particular, are mostly interested in their technical development opportunities and their actual tasks, programming languages, frameworks or technologies that they would be working with.

‘A strong sense of innovation, cutting-edge technologies, as well as a modern and open working mode and culture will most likely attract engineers – more than free fruit or table soccer.’

She added that ‘good technical equipment, flexible working hours, a good work-life balance, as well as an attractive and competitive salary package, are of great interest too’.

Williamson, of Stemmer Imaging commented that there’s a culture of changing jobs more frequently with millennials. He said: ‘With complex industries like machine vision, this represents a challenge, as it takes time to train these skills.

‘We seem to be lucky, as we get quite a high number of staff returning to Stemmer after seeing if the grass is greener. I think if you are a good employer, you minimise the challenges,’ he added.

‘Recruiting is not an exact science, and never will be,’ Waide, at Bitflow, remarked. ‘As always, you wonder about an ageing workforce, and what new technology coming down the pipe will work to benefit the company and the employees.

‘It is really about how the firm’s management adjusts to these new methodologies that will determine the successful handover of the reins, and retaining the right employees while continuing to grow.’

Have an opinion on the engineering skills gap?

Please get in touch with your views on how best to attract engineers in the machine vision sector: greg.blackman@europascience.com

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14 November 2019

Danny Reed, head of education and skills, PPMA Best, on the charity’s work to increase the number of female engineers