Dear Colleagues

Why do some engineering professionals rise rapidly to the top of their organisations? Admittedly some of you will remark grimly that it is due to their superior politicking abilities. Probably very true on occasion. But for engineers and technicians to be successful, you do need something more. And sadly for the traditional engineer and technician - technical skills are not enough today. Probably somewhat distressing for a new engineering graduate to hear this. As we have all generally been indoctrinated (!) into a single-minded focus on solving design problems with quite extraordinary  determination at ensuring a high quality technical outcome.

According to Ted Hissey, there are three main categories of skills that you require:

  • Technical skills (as engineers we obviously understand and expect this)
  • “Soft and management” type skills
  • Personal characteristics for success (the most challenging)

These last two sets of skills will especially make you an outstanding and highly valuable engineering professional who is very much in demand no matter how much downsizing, right sizing, re-engineering or restructuring (whatever the current terminology) is going on.

  1. You still need to be ferociously technically competent

As far as technical skills, most industry executives, expect an outstanding technical training which enables you to jump into a new job quickly and effectively from a technical point of view. As we all know, there are some disconnects with what a school of engineering actually provides you with but at the very least, you should have the theoretical framework to quickly absorb the necessary technical skills to be productive on the job. Other much needed skills are logical and systematic thought processes in solving problems. Finally, a positive attitude to engineering and a good work ethic is expected. As a matter of course, you should have an outstanding level of computer literacy and be completely at ease in working on computer and internet applications (without being labelled a geek).

  1. Soft skills are absolutely vital

Despite, intermittent attempts at engineering school (and perhaps due to the overwhelming pressure to acquire technical skills), engineers and technicians often desperately need soft skills when they arrive on the job. Employers often despair at the poor level of communications – both oral and written – of engineering graduates (my dad used to kid with me about ‘being illiterate when you finish engineering school’). Nothing gives a client or employer a greater warm and fuzzy feeling than when an engineer explains a difficult technical concept in simple English with a set of simple action steps to fix a problem. Record one of your presentations and critically assess it for overall impression, understandability, speed of delivery, posture and body language. Hopefully you are pleasantly surprised but you may be horrified.

And, while there is definitely no need to have an MBA, engineering professionals need to also be able to knowledgeably talk about marketing, sales and finance issues. Engineers are highly skilled and are often employed by business consultancies because of their sought after logical thinking skills. So there is no reason why you can’t critically look at a marketing plan or dissect a profit and Loss statement for an idea of what is happening with a company. One of my engineering colleagues, in between critiquing a critical process control application occasionally finds time to pass the key journal entries for his small systems engineering company.

Finally, I wouldn’t really classify this as a soft skill but project management skills are essential for success as most of us are continually working on projects. Even in R&D.

  1. Personal characteristics for success

Finally, one of the main characteristics of the world today is being able to view everything you do through a global lens. Everything we do is impacted by the global economy (even in the good old US where Billy Bob in Arkansas has to think about the impact China is having on his job). And we have to be able to work in groups (often virtual groups) with different cultures and different areas of expertise located in different parts of the world. Engineers and technicians often get irritated by the group environment due to the lack of accountability and productivity on the part of all team members (remember that last group assignment you did at college where the one member did zero work and still got a pass mark); but these are issues we have to deal with. Finally, the other personal characteristic that is critical is multitasking – running multiple tasks at the same time and nudging them all along to meet multiple deadlines. Many engineers are serially oriented – working on one task until it is completed but unfortunately today we often have to keep multiple balls in the air – so multi tasking is an essential personal characteristic.

Other personal attributes which are very difficult to ‘suddenly manufacture’ are dedication, persistence and assertiveness; but help you enormously.

Thanks to The Economist and Ted W. Hissey of the IEEE for an interesting series of articles on engineering careers.

One thing is surely true for all engineering careers and that is as Christina Baldwin remarks: Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix.

Yours in engineering learning