5 Essential Soft Skills for a Successful Career in Engineering

Three young engineers meeting and shaking hands

While technical knowledge is essential to a successful career in engineering, “soft skills” are playing an increasingly important role in the field, helping employers better identify the STEM professionals best suited for career advancement.

Engineering soft skills are just as critical as technical acumen when carrying out the day-to-day duties of engineering roles. Unfortunately, these soft skills — such as communication, creativity, cooperation, organization, and leadership — often aren’t taught in school.

This presents a serious skills gap.

A Workplace Learning Report published last year by LinkedIn, which surveyed 1,200 talent developers, 2,200 employees, 400 managers, and 200 executives, showed that training for soft skills was the top priority for talent development in 2018.

Top Engineering Soft Skills

A few of the most important soft skills for engineers include:

1. Communication

Many professionals fail to realize the importance of clear, effective, professional communication in the workplace. Engineers, especially, may prize technical ability over day-to-day writing, speaking, and listening skills, assuming that these take a back burner to knowledge of complex engineering concepts. But soft skills in engineering jobs are critical to success — both for employees and employers.

A PSMJ Resources poll asked public works departments to name the top qualities desired for engineers on staff. Included on that list were “good listener,” “good communicator,” and “organized.” In fact, all of these traits were higher on the list than “technically proficient.”

These qualities are particularly important when engineers are dealing with clients; misunderstandings can occur easily, and strong listening skills can significantly reduce the risk of things being lost in translation.

2. Creativity

Driving innovation and bringing about valuable change, creativity is high on the list of soft skills for engineers. Creative individuals are adaptable, nimble, and able to think outside the box — rather than just adhering to the status quo, they find innovative solutions to challenges and aren’t afraid to experiment with new techniques.

In 2004, IEEE Spectrum touched upon the stereotype of engineers as uncreative and unoriginal — a belief many still hold today. But as IEEE explained, “every engineer’s core mission is to try to improve the utility of things, to design products or processes that will solve problems better, faster and cheaper.” This simply could not be achieved if engineers were as uncreative as some claim they are.

Engineers draw on their creative qualities every day on the job, whether problem-solving or troubleshooting. Refining and strengthening these kinds of creative engineering soft skills can be hugely valuable for professionals looking to bolster their resume, highlight certain experiences, or get better at their jobs.

3. Adaptability

No matter what the work environment, engineers must be nimble and ready to adapt to unexpected changes, challenges, or setbacks. Without the ability to adjust plans in order to meet shifting needs, or determine the best solutions to unexpected problems, it can throw off timelines, incur extra, and waste resources.

Adaptability is one of the most important soft skills for engineers, showing employers and prospective employers that individuals can think on their feet and have the confidence to quickly and efficiently mitigate unforeseen issues.

In a 2017 Forbes article, Ash Norton, who works with engineers to develop critical leadership skills, offered advice to professionals in the engineering sphere.

“Accept that there may be many ways to get to the goal,” she said. “As engineers, we’ve often been trained that there is a right way to do things. And let’s face it — we tend to be pretty stubborn. But you can simultaneously be unrelenting on the goal and flexible on the means of getting there.”

Not only will this make individuals more marketable, but it will also help them immensely on the job, cutting down on both time and general stress.

4. Collaboration

Among the most critical soft skills engineering jobs require, collaboration is key to ensuring teams are on the same page and jobs get done efficiently. Successful engineers work with people of all backgrounds, with many personality types — even ones they may not understand or mesh with well.

Angie Keller, vice president of recruiting at Randstad Engineering, highlighted the importance of collaboration and teamwork skills in a conversation with Forbes.

“Teamwork is an essential quality as it leads to better relationships with colleagues, often resulting in greater collaboration and innovation,” she said. “Engineering hinges on innovation and the best ideas often result from group efforts.”

These skills can be developed early on in one’s career. Teaching soft skills for engineering students, for example, can pave the way for continued success in the future by empowering emerging professionals to feel more comfortable navigating tricky workplace environments or dealing with difficult personalities.

5. Leadership

Although the word “leadership” gets thrown around frequently, many professionals across diverse work environments don’t fully grasp all it entails.

Leadership is essentially an amalgamation of different skills, in a way that makes people want to look to someone for guidance, mentorship, and structure.

One of the most important engineer soft skills, successful leadership involves taking challenges head-on while instilling trust in those working in subordinate roles. Although many experts consider leadership a character-based trait, engineers can work to sharpen their leadership qualities day by day even if they don’t currently hold a management or leadership role.

As people grow in their career, they usually become increasingly responsible for empowering others they work with. Work on practicing smart decision-making under pressure by focusing on what you know and how you can apply it to the situation at hand, rather than getting overwhelmed by the big picture.

Foster trust and loyalty in those around you and remember that fellow employees are human. Not every day will be perfect, but by keeping all of the skills listed above in mind, you’re much more likely to be successful.

The Importance of Strengthening Engineering Skills

This list of soft skills for engineers can serve as a great starting point for anyone looking to hone their professional qualities. While it can be challenging to mold our personalities and workplace demeanors in ways we might not be used to, taking the time to put these tips into practice can make a huge difference when navigating today’s ever-shifting engineering landscape.

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