The STEM war


Anybody working in the HR attraction space at any cerebral level should be familiar with the much publicised War for Talent study released by McKinsey and Co in 1998. If you missed this particular lesson, it can be summed up as a declaration that successful companies are engaged in a global war for talent where the top executives are concerned. Successful companies need to be ever vigilant of their culture, employee value proposition and sourcing strategies when attracting high performing management, not to mention what they do in terms of talent development and retention.

The Shift

Since then, the global economy has changed dramatically. From a period of prolonged boom, we now find ourselves in a protracted period of readjustment where companies and workers across the board have needed to come to terms with new economic realities. But McKinsey’s report, (although showing empirical evidence of what the casual observer might regard as obvious at the time), is still relevant now. Indeed there’s probably more than one person reading this piece that has used McKinsey’s findings as part of a pitch process. But is it enough? To my mind the answer is no.

Whilst the battle for the best quality leadership is always going to be hard fought, organisations need to also realise that the battle is on two fronts – as well as the War for Talent to attract the cream of executives, a new front has opened up to recruit the best people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). We are in to the era of the ‘STEM War’ with a whole new set of variables to account for.

Finding STEM talent is more than finding promising executives and assuring them of a rosy future. A cursory look at professional vacancies will tell you that there is huge demand for high calibre, engaged STEM talent, all of whom are individuals with their own unique needs. Their values and aspirations will rarely be congruent with those of the 90’s values of up and coming ‘war for talent’ managers, happy to grant the corporation 24/7 ownership of their Monday to Friday lives.

STEM talent are people that, when effectively engaged, will make the difference between success and failure in a global economy. Organisations that create value from great outputs need the best people delivering the best results, and they need to keep them at their best. They need people engaged in their organisation – congruent with its objectives, innovative in their outlook, appreciative of its realities.

Organisations need to be listening to their top talent and making sure the benefits they offer go above and beyond salary. They need to be specific to needs of individuals. And by individuals, this does not mean stereotypical 21-30 year old males that may or may not be kept happy with some squishy sofas, a basketball net in the corridor and a few X Box consoles. You need to dig deeper than that to find out what’s really important (or ask me to – I love a good interview and focus group session).

The opportunity

So where does that leave us? To my mind, the STEM War needs new tactics, and those tactics need to be around a leadership philosophy of total attraction. Attraction must be cultivated, maintained and communicated internally and externally. No breaks. It should be permeating the very essence of the organisation. Employee value propositions, recruitment campaigns, employee engagement surveys, compensation and benefits, the employee referral scheme, culture management – the list goes on.

More than this, attraction needs to work externally as well. With the explosion of communications and information management technologies, there is no reason why attraction strategy should not extend to talent outside of the organisation. Don’t miss the opportunity for the creation of external talent relationship strategies that engage and inform prospective STEM talent from early education through to retirement. Create an aspirational and engaged workforce and shout about it. So what if the competition has a bigger name when you’re offering a better life?


This calls for a very real shift in the way that organisations approach talent. Should the breadth of strategic responsibility outlined above reside in an HR silo or should it come under marketing? HR would unlikely have the depth of skills to both action and communicate such a strategy (and that’s before anyone even mention politics), whilst the marketing function would lack the HR process skills to make such a strategy a reality. Should organisations be thinking about appointing a Chief Attraction Officer with skills and credibility in both camps to take ownership or should it ultimately come from the CEO themselves? One thing’s for sure, those that are able to attract, engage and retain the best people are going to win the War.

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