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Enhanced Skills for Engineers (Pt. 3): Setting Yourself Apart With Soft Skills

by Ted W. Hissey

Few would argue the idea that engineers today need to possess technical skill and a basic understanding and competence in such business aspects as oral and written communication skills, marketing and finance. In addition to these talents and skills, today’s companies place a premium onindividuals who develop, practice and continue to improve certain extra or soft skills.

With the prevalence of right-sizing in today’s global open-market economy, it's imperative that engineers develop additional aptitudes or skills that will distinguish them from their peers. When decisions have to be made during right-sizing or downsizing, those with extra skills will be the ones remaining.Corporate executives and managers identified several soft skills characteristics that they believe engineers need to maintain their value within an organization. These characteristics can be grouped into two categories: corporate necessities and personal attributes.

Corporate Necessities for a Global Economy

In today’s work environment, corporate necessities include having a global perspective;being a team player; and having sufficient professional depth and versatility to provide a multiplexing capability.

In the past, many engineers preferred taking individual responsibility for developing a particular product or system, even though they had to be concerned with system interfaces and with how their system or subsystem functioned relative to the overall project. Today, things areslightly more complicated and corporations want individuals who exhibit the ability to operate as team players, making more efficient and effective contributions to the organization.

Also, in today’s open-market economy, many multinational companies are forming product and system teams that are truly global, utilizing their personnel in various units (sometimes referred to as skill centers) aroundthe world for their particular expertise. A global perspective and sensitivity are needed to develop and market these products and systems within widely varying international cultures and conditions.

With the continuing trend of corporate downsizing or right-sizing, engineers are being asked to shoulder a much heavier workload and a wider variety of job challenges. As a result, they must developand practice flexibility, gain a basic multiplexing capability, and have a much broader understanding of all aspects of the organization.

Corporate executives agree that today’s corporate necessities — having a global perspective, being a team player, and having a multiplexing capability — are characteristics that should be emphasized in engineering courses. And while team activities arepracticed in technical laboratory classes around the world, even if these corporate values were not taught in depth, managers still believe that engineering students should be advised that these are characteristics that will make them more desirable to potential employers when they enter the workforce.

Personal Attributes Are Harder to Define

Today’s managers also seek personal attributes, whichare much more difficult to define and quantify. These attributes include dedication, persistence and assertiveness.

Dedication basically speaks for itself, but to what and to whom do engineers need to be dedicated? Does dedication refer to retention — having someone dedicated to staying with the corporation? While some executives would like to go back to the good ol' days when engineers stayedwith one company for the duration of their careers, they recognize that in this era of right-sizing, downsizing and corporate mergers, expecting such long-term dedication is unrealistic. Instead, the dedication they seek is to individual assignments at hand. They want engineers who maintain the self-discipline to accomplish their basic job functions while adding another 10 percent in time for...
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