Technical ability alone is insufficient for engineering career success.
“Soft skills” play an increasingly important role in differentiating technical professionals for employment and advancement. A mid-2012 study from Millennial Branding showed that soft skills topped the list of must-haves for employers, with 98 percent of them saying communication skills are essential and 92 percent teamwork skills.
However, most engineering degrees and vendor certifications focus on the theoretical knowledge and technical skills, that do not necessarily equate to the complete set of job skills that employers need. Thus it is important to know what does make up a complete job skills profile for any position of interest to the engineering career professional.
A lack of soft skills can also slow productivity, which is why more and more employers are paying attention to the quality of these skills amongst their technical teams. Soft skills of importance in the technical field include:
- Effective communication (written and verbal)
The interaction between stakeholders, whether it is internal in an organization or external with partners or clients, is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding. That is why effective communication also involves listening, which is itself an essential soft skill. Without actively listening to customers, clients, or project partners, problem-solving becomes much more difficult and time-consuming. Engineers cannot be fully effective in their roles unless they are effective speakers, writers, and listeners. This includes giving presentations, both formal prepared presentations, as well as informal presentation of ideas and facts in meetings.
Creativity is a driving force behind innovation and therefore increasingly gaining recognition as a critical skill in uncertain and challenging economic times. Innovation depends on breakthrough thinking, agility, and empowerment. Organizations depend on big ideas and creative employees to innovate their future products and services, maintaining their market relevance in a constantly changing environment. A core function of engineers is to improve utilization, quality of service, to design products, processes, networks that will provide the best business solutions as cost-effectively as possible. This requires creative thinking skills.
The way professionals demonstrate their adaptability is by showing they are able to think on their feet, assess problems, and find solutions. Developing a quality solution within a given time is a valuable skill. At the same time, today’s technological environment is changing so rapidly that organizations often must implement change internally to keep up. Here, adaptability also means a willingness to change. “Are you the first to complain if plans change? Do you sulk and brood when things don’t go your way?” AOL Jobs recently asked. “If that’s you, think about how you can be a little less rigid. It will make you a more marketable job seeker.”
- Teamwork and Co-operation
A 2007 study from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management used almost 20 million papers over five decades and 2.1 million patents to show that far more teams will be found as authors of knowledge production than single inventors. Whether you call it cooperation, collaboration, or teamwork, an engineer’s ability to work with other people from different backgrounds is essential. For example, the network engineer seldom works alone on a project. Usually there is a team of engineers with different specialisations, working on their particular area, as well as Project Managers, Administrative Staff all working together to meet one set of objectives, sharing accountability as a team.
Leadership is a blending and integration of a variety of skills. Leading people is about successfully interacting with them and convincing them to follow. This makes leadership a key soft skill for STEM professionals who intend to make a difference. “In an engineering context, leadership incorporates a number of capabilities which are critical in order to function at a professional level,” according to the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). “These capabilities include the ability to assess risk and take initiative, the willingness to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, a sense of urgency and the will to deliver on time in the face of constraints or obstacles, resourcefulness and flexibility, trust and loyalty in a team setting, and the ability to relate to others.”
- Organizational Skills
With project deadlines, and business critical solutions on the line, the network engineer has to often juggle more than one task at a time in conjunction with colleagues working on other aspects of the project. The ability to organize the workload and manage the deadlines effectively is a key skill. The ability to plan and prioritize.
- Stress Management
By its very nature, IT is a stressful working environment as the communication technologies involved in IT mean that most IT professionals take work home in the form of mobile devices readily available in their working environment. The changes that an IT project that the network engineer is working on may be bringing to a customer environment can add further stress as the customer staff struggle to adapt to the change, or even resist it. This on top of the deadlines involved mean that the network engineer needs to be resilient and able to cope with significant amounts of pressure. Although this cannot always be trained in a soft skills class, as innate character is closely connected to coping with pressure, certain coping skills can be shared and an awareness introduced which can impact positively on the engineer in the workplace later.
- Interpersonal Skills (Emotional Intelligence)
The ability to work well, interact successfully with others using emotional intelligence – recognition of own feelings regarding an activity/situation, and the feelings of others regarding the same activity/situation, and how to respond appropriately, is a key soft skill for engineers. Engineers are often working with colleagues to succeed a project, or working with customers. Inappropriate responses can slow down co-operation, or at worst break down relationships and interfere with project progress. Interpersonal skills is a broad section referring to our relationships with other people and our ability to maintain these successfully – whether we like the individual or not – we have to work with them.
- Problem Solving and Analytical Skills
The ability to visualize, articulate, and solve both complex and uncomplicated problems and concepts and make decisions that are sensible and based on available information. Such skills include the ability to apply logical thinking to gathering and analyzing information, designing and testing solutions to problems, and formulating plans. In systems analysis the systems analyst should focus on four sets of analytical skills: systems thinking, organizational knowledge, problem identification, and problem analyzing and solving.