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Soft Skills in Engineering: Collaboration Is Key for Innovation

Soft Skills in Engineering: Collaboration Is Key for Innovation

When most companies hire for engineering positions, they’re looking specifically for technical capabilities. After all, engineering often drives the value stream—whether it’s manufacturing, infrastructure, product, or something else entirely. An engineer’s résumé needs to speak to their technical capabilities first and foremost.

And while hiring for technical ability is hard enough in the current labor market, companies also need to consider the hallmarks of a successful hire beyond their ability to think like an engineer. Soft skills are becoming more and more of a crucial part of the engineering environment.

What Are Soft Skills?

Soft skills are abilities that don’t show up on paper. They include traits like good time management, creative thinking, conflict resolution, empathy, and more. Some of the most important and applicable include:

  • Clear communication (across channels)
  • Interpersonal relationship management
  • Active listening skills
  • Confidence and assertiveness
  • Positivity and a sense of humor

While we tend to think of these things more as personality traits than professional skills, they’re nonetheless an essential part of an individual’s career development. Why? Because they’re critical to the work environment, not just the work being done. A brilliant engineer isn’t a valuable asset if they can’t get along with coworkers, participate as part of a team, or if they don’t have the patience to communicate their great ideas.

Among engineers—and in STEM fields generally—there’s a misconception that soft skills simply aren’t necessary, or even available within the talent pool. But as many companies are currently discovering: they are, in fact, extremely valuable—and available. It takes vetting beyond the résumé to unearth them.

De-siloed Development Demands Synergy

The seemingly sudden need to hire engineering professionals with soft skills comes from the shifting paradigm of work. Namely, as we de-silo operations, engineers find themselves collaborating more outside of their specialty.

De-siloed operations demand more from workers—not necessarily in their jobs, but in the way they do them. Sales needs to share data with engineering to improve R&D. Engineers need to sit in on marketing brainstorming sessions to lend insights. No matter the company, engineers are no longer sitting behind desks or sequestered to specific tasks. They’re expected to contribute to cross-departmental synergies. Doing that effectively makes use of an array of soft skills.

Technical Expertise Is Only Half of the Equation

As engineers find themselves part of more diverse company operations and involved in more collaborative efforts, they’ll need to leverage both technical expertise and soft skills. it’s no longer about what they’re capable of doing; it’s about how they achieve objectives.

  • Can an engineer interface with other departments to better-understand the parameters governing a technical project?
  • Does an engineer have the communication skills to articulate value propositions to sales and marketing teams?
  • Are they capable of being on-time to important meetings, contributing, collaborating and providing feedback?

Too many companies still think of engineers as technical tools. They don’t see engineers as contributing members of a team; rather, they see them as computational solution providers. Hand them a problem, let them work, and they’ll deliver a solution. And while many engineers still buy into this role, they’re now tasked with operating as part of a cohesive unit, where soft skills are paramount.

As hiring managers seek out new engineering talent to expand technical teams, they need to look beyond education, experience, and capability. How do they interview? What’s their personality fit? Do they punctuate their résumé with intangibles that lend value outside of task-specific tasks? It’s vital to realize that today, technical expertise is only half of the equation for a successful engineering hire.

How to Identify and Hire for Soft Skills

Soft skills don’t pop off the paper. Companies vetting engineering talent need to find other ways to evaluate prospective candidates whose skills pass the eye test. Thankfully, our tech-enabled world makes this easier than ever. Zoom calls, phone calls, digital surveying, and more all draw out soft skills.

Finding ways to communicate with potential candidates brings soft skills to the surface. Is their mood positive and their tone jovial? Are they engaged and observant, asking questions or repeating key points? Do they understand the scope of employment beyond problem-solving and engineering-specific tasks? Interviews in any capacity give a gauge on soft skill proficiency.

One of the best ways to select engineering talent with soft skills is to put high-potential candidates in situations that demand soft skills:

  • Bring them in for a meeting with collaborative department heads to see how they interact.
  • Invite them to sit in on a meeting or review a recorded meeting and take notes.
  • Prompt open-ended questions that encourage non-technical thinking.

The beauty of soft skills is that they quickly become apparent during interactive interviews. If the candidate struggles to engage outside of specific lines of questioning, it could hint at the need to develop better soft skills. And, if their technical expertise warrants further considerations, employers need to have training programs and company processes in place to help new hires refine those soft skills.

This should lead to an even more important conversation about culture in companies seeking to bring in and retain high-quality engineering talent. Does your culture foster soft skill development? Promote the everyday use of soft skills? Teach employees how to embrace and improve on their soft skills? If not, it’s time to make soft skills central to company culture.

Innovative Leaders Can Spur New Opportunities

The ability to hire engineering professionals equipped with both technical and soft skills comes down to having leadership with these same traits. C-suite professionals need to possess deep knowledge of the technical nuances of engineering, while seeing the importance of soft skills in potential candidates.

Can they solve a technical challenge? Can they do it as part of a team? Can they collaborate on complex issues with less tech savvy individuals or those with different fields of expertise?

As technical challenges become more complex, companies need to hire individuals with the ability to coordinate solutions—not simply demonstrate their own ability. Executive leadership needs to not only hire for both technical and soft skills, but also encourage teams to execute on both.

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by Brian Perry // Brian Perry is a contributor to Businessing Magazine.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.