With the worldwide shortage of qualified engineers expected to hit a critical point in the next 15 years, now might just be the best time in history to come out of school with an engineering degree. This demand for technical talent is certainly great news for anyone entering the engineering profession. But to paraphrase the old business school saying, “with success comes increased competition.” And you can be sure the best jobs go to the best prepared.
If you’re part of the new generation of engineers who graduated in the past decade, you’ve no doubt been exposed to a wide range of new technologies that you’re expected to be proficient in. But some of the most important things to know likely weren’t found on the syllabus—namely, how to successfully manage your career and keep making progress as you move forward. If you’re just getting started or have a few years under your belt, now is a great time to consider how to build and augment the professional skills that will get you ahead and keep you there for the long term. The best part is, you don’t have to do it alone.
No Shortage of Tools to Use or Problems to Solve
Given the amazing tools and technologies new engineers have to work with today, and the endless variety of problems to solve and products to deliver, it’s easy to get tunnel vision when it comes to your career. With rapid advances in automation and additive manufacturing, and the demand for industrial sustainability and product energy efficiency improvements, today’s engineers have more than enough tasks on their plates to fill their days and then some. And while it’s likely that most engineers under 30 are familiar with these processes and disciplines, they may not know that hiring managers most frequently cite analytical/critical thinking, verbal/written communication skills, and complex problem solving as hard skills lacking among underqualified candidates.
Certainly, these hard skills are imperative for today’s engineers to own. But just as these technological advances and the ability to work effectively with them has become de riguer, so has the need to be able to successfully collaborate with other engineers, project supervisors, and managers across the table and on virtual projects across the globe (both with internal colleagues, as well as with clients, suppliers, and other collaborators).
This is why a proficiency in soft skills is so critical to career success. Because quite frankly, engineers who understand that side of the work equation are almost certain to build their careers faster than those who don’t. And with the variety of employment options available to engineers in today’s marketplace, those skills can, and will, open doors to opportunity like never before.
Full Time for Free Agent? It’s Your Call
Understanding and taking advantage of soft skills comes into sharper focus when you consider how the workplace paradigm has shifted in recent years. Workers, including engineers, now have a choice as to whether they stay with a company or leave whenever a better opportunity presents itself. Known as free agents, these workers represent a growing segment of the workforce. Until relatively recently, many in the engineering workforce sought long-term employment with one firm (e.g., an automaker) where they could tuck in and work on a relatively small number of assignments—expecting to work there until retirement.
Today, good engineers can have their pick of engagements. And in fact, a growing number of professional/technical workers are now free agents. Many choose to work on a contract basis because it affords them the opportunity to take jobs that best fit their lives. A project-based focus helps them round out their skill sets, encounter new technologies and engineering challenges, upgrade their resumes, and ultimately make themselves much more attractive and valuable to future employers. But navigating this new world successfully means building and then demonstrating these hard-to-hire essential skills.
What the Hiring Experts Say
At Kelly Services, we’ve studied this situation extensively as part of our Kelly Global Workforce Index. We discovered that six out of 10 hiring managers across technical professions say they have difficulties finding candidates with the right combination of hard and soft skills.
These hiring managers cite social intelligence—the ability to get along well with others and get them to cooperate with you—as the heart of soft skill development. Of five key soft skills, PT hiring managers most frequently cite the ability to listen/comprehend (81%) as highly important, and 72% claim that teamwork/ability to collaborate is critical (significantly higher for engineering talent, at 85%). For underqualified candidates, 27% of PT hiring managers report a lack of teamwork/ability to collaborate—again, especially for engineering talent, at 40%.
Clearly, underestimating your need for soft skills is a bad move if you want to get ahead. So here are five good rules to follow that will help you augment and hone those skills as you go forward:
- Treat your career like a business by developing a personal brand. What are your career goals and objectives? Develop a portfolio of work, keep your social media space clean, and network in the circles that can leverage your skill specialty while expanding your circle of influence. Engage with organizations with employer brands that best match yours. You cannot underestimate the significance of your credibility and how that speaks for you.
- Take responsibility for yourself and your growth by being brutally honest with yourself. What gaps are there in your skill set and experience? Once identified, use and extend your network to fill those gaps with industry certifications and/or direct experience. Gradually and systematically develop complementary and supplementary skills and experiences that align with your career objectives.
- Be collaborative with your colleagues. How well do you collaborate with others? Collaborating is about sharing work, sharing experiences, and learning from each other—not about being the smartest person in the room and inviting them to that room. Sometimes it’s about creating the room for everyone to be smart in together. You want these individuals to be your next referral.
- Leverage social intelligence. What soft skills do you need to develop? What feedback from colleagues or mentors have you not put in place yet? Social intelligence is being able to analyze your own behavior and create definitive actions to improve it, from LinkedIn to each interaction.
- Go beyond your comfort zone. This economy requires some risk-taking in order to have resilience—are you ready for that? Only reinforcing expertise in a specific industry or technology at the expense of gaining knowledge, skills, and experiences outside your core area could put you at greater risk for becoming irrelevant in the long term.
Ultimately, as an engineer and as a professional, you need to be prepared to manage your own career—now and down the road. But trust me, that path can be easier to navigate when you avail yourself of available resources and services, such as working with professionals at workforce solutions agencies who can help you to network, find engagements, and effectively market your services.
 2015 Hiring Manager Research, conducted by RDA Group on behalf of Kelly Services.
 HfS Consulting CEO Phil Fersht
This article was first published in the July 2016 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.