Engineers struggle with soft skills in a unique way

Engineers struggle with soft skills in a unique wayThe Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an article on Tuesday titled “Two-Thirds of College Grads Struggle to Launch Their Careers”. Here’s one section that resonated with me:

…employers question whether a traditional undergraduate education arms students with the soft skills needed in the workplace—problem solving, critical thinking, communications, and working in teams.

An analysis of millions of job ads by the workforce analytics firm Burning Glass found that those requiring a bachelor’s degree list more soft skills than technical skills among the set of requirements.

Within the framework of the HBR article, I can think of three classes of early career scientists and engineers:

  1. Those without technical competence.
  2. Those with technical competence, but without social competence.
  3. Those with both technical and social competence.

I’m using “social” broadly here, to mean the skills that live outside the core technical curriculum. As you might expect, it’s easier to determine whether candidates have sufficient technical competence. The social piece is trickier.

Look at the soft skills the HBR author calls out: “problem solving, critical thinking, communications, and working in teams”. From what I’ve seen myself, I’d combine the first three and call it “the ability to identify interesting problems”. It’s one thing to know what tools to use when you stumble across a textbook problem. It’s an entirely different thing to know how to craft your own tractable problems.

The HBR article isn’t isolating science and engineering graduates. The claim is that all grads struggle to launch their careers, in no small part because of weak soft skills. For engineers, the issue is a bit different. Engineering roles predominantly require technical skills. Recruiters allow greater flexibility in the range of acceptable soft skills.

What do I mean when I say that engineers struggle with soft skills in a unique way? Before I get there, engineers struggle with soft skills in the way that all college grads struggle with soft skills. These kinds of skills tend to come with life experience. People develop and refine these skills as their careers unfold.

However, engineers face a unique challenge, because they require second level soft skills. They require the problem solving, critical thinking, and communications skills to articulate a clear problem statement where none exists today.

Sure, some scientists and engineers are hired to solve cookie cutter problems. That’s increasingly rare. One huge reason scientists and engineers are so valuable is they can help employers determine what the right question even is.

Again, given my personal experience, I think early career STEM professionals are too worried about technical skills. It’s easy to assume other people know more theory, or have used more equipment, or have authored more papers. And technical skills clearly matter. But when it comes to competitive advantage in industry, what matters much more is the ability to find and articulate interesting problems with market relevance.

Any enterprise of sufficient size will collect technical horsepower. You’ll rarely (if ever) have the most impeccable technical credentials in any organization you find yourself in. What you can have, though, is the ability to think and communicate most clearly.

There’s a reason job ads emphasize soft skills over technical skills. As a scientist or engineer, you already have the technical skills. Your degree demonstrates that. It’s clear that where companies find their advantages are with technical folks that also have social competence. That’s where you can make your greatest contributions.



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