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Recruiting and retaining the right staff in construction

Experienced engineer Jamie Shelton shares with Cranes and Lifting the key elements to hiring and keeping the right employees in the fast-moving construction sector.

Experienced engineer Jamie Shelton shares with Cranes and Lifting the key elements to hiring and keeping the right employees in the fast-moving construction sector.

From beach breaks and cocktail parties, to a company ‘university’ and bring-your-kids-to-work day: how a rapidly growing consultancy has the right formula for retaining highly skilled employees and advancing women in a male-dominated industry.

In the highly competitive field of engineering, Jamie Shelton – the forward-thinking CEO of engineering consultancy Northrop – has developed a winning approach to attracting, engaging and retaining highly skilled employees, to ultimately grow the business. The results have been a 35 per cent growth in employees in two years, 37 per cent growth in female employees in one year, women being appointed to principal roles, a below-average employee turnover rate – and 22 per cent growth in company revenue in two years.

Northrop is an award-winning, multi-disciplinary engineering consultancy with 345 employees in eight offices across NSW, ACT, QLD and VIC. Its civil, structural, building services and sustainability teams have shaped residential developments, schools, parks, bridges and roads – collectively worth billions – over the last 40 years.

Jamie Shelton is one of Australia’s most senior and experienced engineers who was twice an Engineers Australia Top 100 Engineer, is former Chair of the National Engineering Registration Board, and is former President of Consult Australia. Beginning his career at Northrop in 1988 as Graduate Engineer, he climbed the ranks and was appointed CEO in 2017.

Jamie quickly saw that a people and culture focus was key to growing the business. With his team, he decentralised Northrop’s employee engagement programs across its eight offices, fostered a family-friendly workplace, and grew recognition of the company’s female employees.

Each Northrop office tailors its people and culture programs to suit its employees. The Newcastle office, for instance, has a fishing club and a kids’ playroom. The team at Wollongong often go to the beach during their lunch break. The Canberra office holds monthly movie nights and BBQs. Melbourne hosts monthly cocktail parties. The Sydney CBD office enters teams into major sporting events such as City2Surf, holds an annual lawn bowls event, and organises an annual ‘bring your kids to work’ day. At Erina, the office manager shouts staff a bacon and eggs breakfast every Friday. Each quarter, the Sydney CBD and Parramatta offices hold ‘Inspiration Sessions’, where external speakers present on specific topics.

Flexible work arrangements are available across all offices. The company also holds conferences and annual employee awards, including for every five years of service. There is also an increased super contribution after ten years of service.

Jamie also promotes continuing education, personal growth and equal career opportunities for all employees. Northrop University, a development program for graduate engineers, has been a successful initiative launched by the business. The company also fully subsidises TAFE courses for its draftspersons, and offers extensive on-the-job training, including regular internal technical conferences.

Northrop is employee owned, and this year promoted two women engineers to principal roles. Promotion to principal positions is based on an employee’s leadership, development of their own teams, and successes they have brought to the company.

Principal and Senior Structural Engineer, Karlie Collis – a single mum to a four-year-old – has been with Northrop since 2004, after graduating with a civil engineering degree from the University of Newcastle. She is Chair of the National Structural College board at Engineers Australia, and is on the board of the Engineers Australia Newcastle division committee.

From a family who pushed her to pursue anything she wanted in life, Karlie studied engineering “before women in STEM was even a thing,” she says. Karlie says the challenges women face to succeed in the engineering industry is something she has not witnessed at Northrop.

She received great support within the company when she became a single mum. “Without their emotional and financial help, I would have been out of this industry,” she said.

She enjoyed 10 months of maternity leave at 75 per cent pay, after which she returned to work three days a week for 18 months. She says the Newcastle Regional Manager’s wife has looked after her son Leo when she couldn’t get babysitting.

“There is a real family vibe about Northrop – everyone knows everyone else’s family,” she says.

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