SMEC – Attracting, inducting and developing Australia’s best graduates

Table of Contents

SMEC is a specialist engineering, management and development consultancy, headquartered in Australia while operating out of more than 40 countries. The organisation is a member of the Surbana Jurong Group, an Asia-based urban and infrastructure consulting powerhouse. From building hydroelectric plants to sports stadiums, SMEC leads the way in delivering advanced engineering and management advisory across the world. 

A Graduate Focus

To continue to deliver ground-breaking infrastructure projects and to thrive as a business, SMEC ANZ understands it must attract and develop Australia’s top talent. One of the most critical talent groups for the organisation is graduates. In Australia alone, SMEC’s workforce includes 160 to 200 graduates at any one time.

Polishing diamonds

SMEC had a long track record of attracting graduate talent to its business but had identified (as most businesses do) that there was a significant learning curve required to translate the technical knowledge obtained through university and other tertiary institutions into tangible skills that can be used on the job.

Feedback from previous graduates about the training and induction process had been positive, but a number of employees noted that while training was interesting and educational, it didn’t always translate directly into skills they could leverage to improve their performance on the job.

The tyranny of distance

Another challenge the SMEC learning and development team faced when it came to inducting and developing graduate talent, was the dispersed nature of its workforce. SMEC’s Australian operations are spread across 20 different sites, all of which house graduates. This vast geographic spread presented two key challenges when it came to training and upskilling staff. 

The first was that staff in more remote locations didn’t always receive the same quantity of training as those in major offices did. Secondarily, the business noted that to deliver the consistent training required it must either commit to costly face-to-face sessions with people flying in from different locations across the country or manage the duplication of effort that arose from delivering the same training across multiple locations

This reliance on face-to-face training also meant that graduate development pathways were very time-sensitive. If someone missed a session or joined the group outside of major graduate intakes, it could be many months before they were able to attend the next round of training, which would impact their performance on the job.

From Good to Great

Despite what was considered to be a good graduate program, SMEC saw opportunities to improve the way it was training and developing its next generation of talent. Seizing on these opportunities, the CEO identified building a more robust and scalable graduate development program as the number one priority for the SMEC learning and development team.

A program of work was devised to achieve three primary objectives 

  1. Attract and retain the best graduate talent 
  2. Expose graduates to multiple disciplines of engineering so they can deliver to a high standard for SMEC clients and to the community
  3. Develop graduates’ soft skills beyond academic learning

The approach

The learning and development team went through a rigorous process to determine how to best meet these objectives. Interviews were carried out with current and past graduates, managers and training providers to develop an approach that would best suit the business.

At the end of this process, it was determined that a blended approach (leveraging both online and face-to-face training) would be the most effective way to deliver on the business’s objectives. This approach meant the organisation could maintain a cultural connection between graduates through face-to-face sessions, but supplement and enhance these sessions in a cost-effective and timely manner by enabling graduates to do online training in their own time.

It became apparent immediately that a technology platform would be needed to support this new, blended approach to graduate induction. Until this point, all company training had been delivered face-to-face so no training platform existed in the business.

The organisation knew that to achieve its goals, the platform would need to support customised training content. This capability was seen as critical for the team as it was understood that generic ‘off the shelf’ training would not deliver the specific skills that graduates require to succeed within SMEC’s unique environment. 

The team at SMEC were faced with a decision. Commit to a full Learning Management System (LMS) roll out and accept that they would need to pay an external third party for the custom creation of their learning content or implement Tribal Habits and allow its own employees to easily create interactive engaging training themselves. After analysing the associated costs and scalability of each option, the decision became very clear. Tribal Habits came in more than $400,000 cheaper than the next best alternative and the fact that Tribal Habits allowed SMEC staff to easily create their own training modules meant the solution was infinitely more scalable than paying for external training content creation each time a new need arose. 

The Head of Learning and Development at SMEC said the following about the decision to go with the Tribal Habits platform 

“Tribal Habits was unique in the market as it allowed us to rapidly capture and transfer organisational knowledge via text, imagery, video and interactive elements. It captured and shared insights and tips from participants, meaning the knowledge captured in each module actually increases as users complete topics. It set and tracked on-the-job activities, as well as notifying Managers of the learning their graduates were completing. The platform provided ready-made expert content on relevant business and self-development topics, in SMEC branding, while allowing for the rapid creation of completely custom and interaction training.”

Up and running in no time.

The team at SMEC were able to carry out the technical implementation of Tribal Habits in two weeks and had a fully functional graduate learning platform with custom content in place within six weeks. This is roughly half the amount of time it would have taken to implement a traditional LMS system.

The proof is in the pudding

As discussed earlier, the graduate development project was established to achieve three distinct goals. Here is a summary of how the team tracked against each of them.

Objective 1: Attract and retain the best graduate talent.

Feedback from the manager of the graduate program has been overwhelmingly positive. Speaking how the program has helped attract graduate talent, she said;

“The grad program has been an invaluable attraction tool for our intake. Today’s graduates want to know that their personal and professional development is important to the company they join and with the structured training the program offers, it is clear that SMEC is committed to developing our next generation of engineers”

SMEC has been able to exhibit a significant reduction in graduate turnover since the program started, as the figures below exemplify.

                        Year: Graduate turnover rate

  •               2017: 17%
  •               2018: 12.5% 
  •               2019: 10.3% 

Over the life of the program, graduate turnover has dropped from being 2% above the organisational average in 2017 to 0.6% below the organisational average in 2019. These figures are remarkable given that younger workforce members tend to be more transient than their older, more senior colleagues. 

In the 2019 engagement survey mentioned above, 79% of ANZ employees aged 18-24 agreed or strongly agreed they would not hesitate to recommend SMEC to a friend seeking employment.  

Objective 2: Expose graduates to multiple disciplines of engineering so they can deliver to a high standard for SMEC clients and to the community.

Through its self-created learning experiences, SMEC was able to expose its graduate cohort to the full array of engineering disciplines the business engaged in. This provided graduates not only with a broader knowledge base of the company’s operations but also provided granular detail into how their role fits into the wider business. 

These learning experiences were created by subject matter experts within the business and were positioned to specifically address the challenges and opportunities that SMEC faced as an organisation. Feedback from graduates suggests that this highly focussed approach has provided valuable insights into how the business operates and has enabled graduates to get up to speed as quickly as possible.

Objective 3: Develop graduates’ soft skills beyond academic learning

As well as role-specific technical training, SMEC identified that it needed to develop the professional skills of its graduate team. To achieve this, SMEC developed several professional development pathways. These learning workflows provided graduates with a structured approach to skills that would help them succeed in a professional environment like managing emails, how to be run productive meetings and effective communications. 

The combination of technical skill development, understanding how the broader business functions and soft skill development means that SMEC is approaching graduate development from a holistic point of view, ensuring all graduates have every opportunity to succeed within the business.

Evaluations for both the face-to-face and online components of the graduate training program show that around 95% of participants find them relevant and valuable. In addition to the survey data indicating improved effectiveness on the job, anecdotal feedback from managers shows tangible improvements in performance.

An organisation-wide engagement survey was conducted in April 2019. Results from the survey revealed that 85% of ANZ employees aged 18-24 (likely to be in the graduate development program) agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the support the organisation provides for learning and education. 

Onwards and upwards

Management feedback on the new graduate training program has been extremely positive, with the project being deemed a categorical success. In 2019 the SMEC management team committed to the continuation of the program stating that: 

  • The content and delivery were of high-quality.
  • The program was delivered as scoped and to budget.
  • They had received positive feedback from participants.

Speaking on the impact of the program, SMEC’s state manager for QLD and NT stated;

“I’m very pleased to see the impact the graduate development program is having on our business outcomes. Not only has the program created an edge for SMEC as an employer of choice, but it is also providing the Graduates with genuine opportunities to become rounded professionals.”

Based on the positive outcomes delivered, the CEO of SMEC & CEO International Surbana Jurong Group advocated for the program to be expanded beyond ANZ and a modified version is currently being deployed in the Africa Division. A sister company is also in the process of joining the program from July 2019, largely based on the feedback from participants and management.

The project has not only garnered internal praise. SMEC Australia’s Graduate Development Program has been recognised as a leader in the industry, winning gold for Best Learning & Development Project (Induction/Onboarding) and silver for Best Learning Model (Blended) at the LearnX Live Awards 2019. To find out more click here.


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