Engineers Need Intangible Soft Skills to Stand Out and Succeed

The past was a simpler time.

Has there ever been a truer sentiment with regard to just about every aspect of modern life? In the workplace, in particular, we've already seen the simple career formula become obsolete: A bachelor's degree plus 30 years on the job used to equal a guaranteed pension and retirement bliss. Today, if a young person would even want to spend his or her entire career in one place, there's certainly no guarantee an employer would want that let alone subsidize retirement.

engineering in hardhatIn the engineering field, it's no different, despite a history in which Baby Boomers were able to forge long, stable careers in the big-four engineering disciplines (civil, mechanical, industrial, and electrical). Engineering opportunity, of course, is still there. In fact, over the next decade, demand for engineers is expected to grow by 11 percent, with the National Association of Colleges and Employers reporting that engineering majors currently rank second in the most in-demand skill sets.

But make no mistake; this is not the your father's engineering environment where a seemingly simple, straightforward set of technical skills was all it took to be successful. Along with the current growing demand for engineers comes a very different set of expectations from employers.

It's not just a matter of technical skills anymore - though they are still important. Across all industries today, every employer looks for candidates with the more elusive soft skills. Even with an abundance of jobs, this new dynamic is making the engineering labor market competitive in new ways, as we begin to understand that a job well done often requires far more intangible inputs in the way we relate to people and circumstances. So if engineers can master a dynamic set of both technical and soft skills, employers will consider them as far more valuable team members and job candidates.

How, exactly, can engineers master this evolving frontier? How can they differentiate themselves with soft skills to complement traditional pedigrees and technical abilities?

To start, there must be a fundamental shift in the way we understand how work is getting done in the engineering environment today. There are important movements in play, including an increasingly multigenerational workforce and a global business climate in which project work with mobile teams is becoming the norm.

On the daily grind of the job, every engineer is now likely to encounter colleagues who've just graduated from college as well as seasoned professionals with years of experience. In this dynamic, there is a huge range of perceptions of what work is supposed to be. Baby Boomers are likely to be far more traditional in keeping their work and social lives separate, while Millennials are far more likely to think of work as an extension of their lifestyles.

Employees who can bridge their communication styles with all kinds of colleagues are valuable to employers, who are equally challenged by this dynamic, multigenerational mix of workers as well. For example, the intangible skill of being able to adapt communication styles to a particular situation while being able to express oneself clearly and professionally in every instance is extremely valuable to an engineer navigating the new workplace reality.

The new reality for how work is actually getting done is also a critical factor in engineering today. There is more and more collaboration on a global basis. A civil engineer might, indeed, find himself or herself working with a team thousands of miles away on any given project. Differences in language and culture will invariably collide, but an employee who can't adapt won't be able to collaborate well.

As the project-centric world of work continues to unfold, engineers who can navigate the pitfalls of these situations will be extremely valuable to employers. To a large extent, employers already know that you'll have the technical skills, coming into the job. For them, the questions of who will and won't be successful on the job are likely to revolve around intangible skills. Does a prospective engineer have the ability to collaborate and bring team members together? Is he able to solve complex problems that aren't necessarily technical in nature? Is she able to bring creative thinking to the table that will drive future innovation?

Project management skills will become extremely important, as well, along with all of the skills that this type of work entails. Employers want to know if their engineers can manage a complex project instead of just contributing to one part of it. And will they be able to work in the non-traditional ways in which many projects are completed today, such as tapping into the power of crowdsourcing, innovation communities, and the flexible nature of global work?

Engineering degrees, no doubt, set job candidates apart from the crowd in today's job market, and demand for their technical skill sets won't be waning any time soon. But we're also living in the real world, where our ability to relate on a soft-skill level can be the make-or-break dynamic on the job. Employers want to know that you can not only solve a technical problem but also understand how the organization really ticks. Engineering hiring managers know how important soft skills are in today's engineering world - and they want their talent to bring that to the table as well.

Whether you're looking to move up or applying for engineering roles, market your soft skills as an asset - or work on them before you start your job search if you know you might need work in this area. This is the differentiator that will help you stand out and make you one step closer to the next chapter of a rewarding career.


Tim McAward is vice president and engineering product leader for Kelly Services Inc. He has responsibility for branding, market positioning, "go-to-market" strategies, and profitability in North America. Tim holds a B.S. in finance from Arizona State University and an MBA from St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. Kelly Services is a leading provider of workforce solutions headquartered in Troy, Mich., offering an array of outsourcing and consulting services as well as world-class staffing on a temporary, temporary-to-hire, and direct-hire basis. Since employing its first engineer in 1965, the Kelly engineering specialty has grown to be recognized as a leading provider of engineering resources to customers in such industries as automotive, chemical, defense, electronics, energy, medical, and pharmaceutical. 

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