Home >mint-lounge >It pays if engineers have ‘soft skills’ too

One of the final requirements before landing a coveted engineering internship this summer was a presentation to corporate recruiters. And Vita Como, senior director of professional development at the University of Houston, US, told the three students who work for her at the Cullen College of Engineering Career Center to practise theirs 10 times before taking the stage.

There was grumbling, recalls Como, who coached her student workers to elaborate and not just read the slides in their presentations. But the practice paid off when all three got paid internships —a point not lost on other applicants in the room who bumbled and fumbled through their own presentations.

Word spread quickly among the engineering students about how coaching and practice can turn a dull recitation into a polished presentation—and maybe land them a job. “I had a line out my office," says Como.

Standing out: Coaching can help students create a good first impression.

Engineers don’t just deal with machines and models, says Samuel Frimpong, who chairs the mining department at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Missouri, US. They need to interact with their co-workers, subordinates and managers as well as industry groups and regulatory agencies. They need to know how to lead, communicate and work with others.

Too shy?

But many incoming engineering students are “big time" deficient in those social skills, says Frimpong. Many are shy and unable to make an effective presentation standing in front of peers. Frimpong knows the importance of soft skills and launched a yearlong seminar for undergraduates that requires them to make weekly presentations. That class began after a survey of industry leaders and alumni suggested the school should boost students’ skills in written and oral communications. One mining executive who recruits told Frimpong that he assumes all the graduates are technically qualified, and that it’s communication, presentation and other soft skills that make some students stand out.

Shaking hands

At the University of Houston, engineering students can attend seminars on how to shake hands and introduce themselves, create a good first impression and navigate a business lunch. They don’t always absorb this information easily. Students assume a business meal is about eating, says Como, whose instruction includes the basics—be gracious to the waiter when ordering—and details about which napkin and water glass to use.

In earlier times, engineering recruits were supervised by other engineers and didn’t meet customers for years, Como says. New engineers now are expected to come on board with the social skills needed to meet and greet clients. But it’s not always easy to teach the rules of napkin use, bread buttering and fork selection to students inclined more to efficiency and rationality rather than towards esoteric dining customs.

For the sake of argument

Engineers usually argue that their grade-point average should be the only factor that counts in whether they get a job, says Como. She says she finds herself explaining that that is not how the corporate world works.

Michael Wong, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice University, looks for opportunities to point out errors and then quietly—and gently—explains how to do better.

He often gets that opportunity when he brings in visitors to his lab and introduces them to the students working there. Some know to stop what they’re doing, introduce themselves and explain their work. For others, it’s not so easy.

Wong says he goes back after visitors leave and explains, for example, the importance of maintaining eye contact. He explains that someone looking at his shoes sends the message that he’s not interested in the conversation or that a visitor is imposing on his time.

©2011/the New York Times

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