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5 Must-Have Soft Skills for Engineers’ Career Success

Technical acumen alone is insufficient for engineering career success. “Soft skills” play an increasingly important role in differentiating STEM professionals for employment and advancement.

renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the day-to-day work of engineers and technical specialists, soft skills are as important as technical skills. These skills, or emotional intelligence, are often not learned in school and enable professionals to navigate smoothly and effectively through a wide variety of social and professional situations with a wide variety of people. Such skills include communication, cooperation, creativity, leadership, and organization.

A mid-2012 study from Millennial Branding showed that soft skills topped the list of must-haves for employers, with 98 percent of them saying communication skills are essential and 92 percent teamwork skills. Following are five key soft skills that engineers and other STEM professionals should develop for career success.

Soft Skill 1: Communication

While speaking, writing, and listening are everyday actions, many professionals underestimate the importance of communication skills. Engineers tend to prioritize technical skills over communication skills, not realizing that they cannot be fully effective in their jobs if they are inadequate speakers, writers, and listeners. Yet it is particularly in the engineering fields that effective communication skills are crucial to success.

In a recent survey conducted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers of both society members and nonmembers in engineering-related positions, respondents said they believe communication skills — such as business writing, technical writing, public speaking, and presentation preparation — are “crucial” for success as engineers work in and among more varied groups.

The interaction between stakeholders, whether it is internal in an organization or external with partners or clients, is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding. That is why effective communication also involves listening, which is itself an essential soft skill. Without actively listening to customers, clients, or project partners, problem-solving becomes much more difficult and time-consuming.

Soft Skill 2: Creativity

Creativity is arguably the driving force behind innovation and therefore increasingly gaining recognition as the new capital in uncertain and challenging economic times. Innovation thrives on breakthrough thinking, nimbleness, and empowerment. Organizations often depend on big ideas and creative employees to develop innovative products and services.

In the mid-aughts, IEEE Spectrum noted the frequent accusation that engineers are uncreative — a myth that persists today. Yet, as IEEE Spectrum explained, “every engineer’s core mission is to try to improve the utility of things, to design products or processes that will solve problems better, faster and cheaper.” This mission would rarely be achieved if not for engineers’ ways of thinking, which often lead to problem-solving opportunities that would otherwise remain hidden.

In the engineering fields, creativity can be as valuable to solving a problem as the technical skills to identify and troubleshoot the source of the problem. As such, creative thinking is a soft skill that engineers, scientists, and others in the STEM fields should cultivate in order to become invaluable members of their organizations.

Soft Skill 3: Adaptability

There is no shortage of challenges and issues that arise on any given workday. Having the ability to identify solutions to unforeseen problems requires being able to modify and adjust accordingly to the environment and situation.

This flexibility is one of the soft skills that increasingly more employers look for in employees. The way professionals demonstrate their adaptability is by showing they are able to think on their feet, assess problems, and find solutions. The ability to develop a well-thought-out solution within a given time is a skill that employers value greatly.

At the same time, today’s tech frontier is rapidly reshaping industries, which means that organizations often must implement change internally to keep up. Here, adaptability also means a willingness to face the unexpected.

“Are you the first to complain if plans change? Do you sulk and brood when things don’t go your way?” AOL Jobs recently asked. “If that’s you, think about how you can be a little less rigid. It will make you a more marketable job seeker.”

Soft Skill 4: Collaboration

A 2007 study from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management used almost 20 million papers over five decades and 2.1 million patents to demonstrate that teams increasingly dominate solo authors in knowledge production. The days of single-inventor innovations have been replaced with team research across nearly all fields.

Whether you call it cooperation, collaboration, or teamwork, an engineer’s ability to work with other people from different backgrounds is essential.

“For example, when designing a transformer for high-voltage transmission lines … it takes more than one engineer to complete the project,” the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) recently explained. “It requires a team of engineers and other professionals — drafters, project managers, and administrative staff — working together and potentially interfacing with clients, regulatory agencies, subcontractors, and even public advocacy groups.

“What would be the likelihood of success if team members could not communicate together?” the ASTD continued. “What if they could not share responsibilities and accountability in working as a team? What if there was no leadership present in the project?”

Soft Skill 5: Leadership

Leadership, in and of itself, is not one skill but the blending and integration of a variety of skills. By its very nature, leading people is about successfully interacting with them and convincing them to follow. This makes leadership a key soft skill for STEM professionals who intend to make a difference.

“In an engineering context, leadership incorporates a number of capabilities which are critical in order to function at a professional level,” according to the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). “These capabilities include the ability to assess risk and take initiative, the willingness to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, a sense of urgency and the will to deliver on time in the face of constraints or obstacles, resourcefulness and flexibility, trust and loyalty in a team setting, and the ability to relate to others.”

While much of leadership is character-based, engineers can develop or hone certain leadership skills or attributes to foster personal and professional success.

“Leadership skills are also important to allow engineers later in their careers to help develop and communicate vision for the future and to help shape public policy,” the NSPE continued. “These leadership capabilities are essential for the professional practice of engineering and for the protection of public health, safety and welfare.”

by David Butcher | March 18, 2013
– See more at: http://www.thomasnet.com/journals/career/5-must-have-soft-skills-for-engineers-career-success/#sthash.EIOj0Nl0.dpuf


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Writing Skills: Getting Your Written Message Across Clearly

Improve your writing skills
with James Manktelow & Amy Carlson.

A colleague has just sent you an email relating to a meeting you’re having in one hour’s time. The email is supposed to contain key information that you need to present, as part of the business case for an important project.

But there’s a problem: The email is so badly written that you can’t find the data you need. There are misspellings and incomplete sentences, and the paragraphs are so long and confusing that it takes you three times more than it should to find the information you want.

As a result, you’re under-prepared for the meeting, and it doesn’t go as well as you want it to.

Have you ever faced a situation similar to this? In today’s information overload world, it’s vital to communicate clearly, concisely and effectively. People don’t have time to read book-length emails, and they don’t have the patience to scour badly-constructed emails for “buried” points.

The better your writing skills are, the better the impression you’ll make on the people around you – including your boss, your colleagues, and your clients. You never know how far these good impressions will take you!

In this article, we’ll look at how you can improve your writing skills and avoid common mistakes.
Audience and Format

The first step to writing clearly is choosing the appropriate format. Do you need to send an informal email? Write a detailed report? Create advertising copy? Or write a formal letter?

The format, as well as your audience, will define your “writing voice” – that is, how formal or relaxed the tone should be. For instance, if you write an email to a prospective client, should it have the same tone as an email to a friend?

Definitely not.

Start by identifying who will read your message. Is it targeted at senior managers, the entire human resources team, or a small group of engineers? With everything you write, your readers, or recipients, should define your tone as well as aspects of the content.
Composition and Style

Once you know what you’re writing, and for whom you’re writing, you actually have to start writing.

A blank, white computer screen is often intimidating. And it’s easy to get stuck because you don’t know how to start. Try these tips for composing and styling your document:

Start with your audience – Remember, your readers may know nothing about what you’re telling them. What do they need to know first?
Create an outline – This is especially helpful if you’re writing a longer document such as a report, presentation, or speech. Outlines help you identify which steps to take in which order, and they help you break the task up into manageable pieces of information.
Use AIDA – If you’re writing something that must inspire action in the reader, follow the Attention-Interest-Desire-Action (AIDA) formula. These four steps can help guide you through the writing process.
Try some empathy – For instance, if you’re writing a sales letter for prospective clients, why should they care about your product or sales pitch? What’s the benefit for them? Remember your audience’s needs at all times.
Use the Rhetorical Triangle – If you’re trying to persuade someone to do something, make sure that you communicate why people should listen to you, pitch your message in a way that engages your audience, and present information rationally and coherently. Our article on the Rhetorical Triangle can help you make your case in the most effective way.
Identify your main theme – If you’re having trouble defining the main theme of your message, pretend that you have 15 seconds to explain your position. What do you say? This is likely to be your main theme.
Use simple language – Unless you’re writing a scholarly article, it’s usually best to use simple, direct language. Don’t use long words just to impress people.

Structure

Your document should be as “reader friendly” as possible. Use headings, subheadings, bullet points, and numbering whenever possible to break up the text.

After all, what’s easier to read – a page full of long paragraphs, or a page that’s broken up into short paragraphs, with section headings and bullet points? A document that’s easy to scan will get read more often than a document with long, dense paragraphs of text.

Headers should grab the reader’s attention. Using questions is often a good idea, especially in advertising copy or reports, because questions help keep the reader engaged and curious.

In emails and proposals, use short, factual headings and subheadings, like the ones in this article.

Adding graphs and charts is also a smart way to break up your text. These visual aids not only keep the reader’s eye engaged, but they can communicate important information much more quickly than text.
Grammatical Errors

You probably don’t need us to tell you that errors in your document will make you look unprofessional. It’s essential to learn grammar properly, and to avoid common mistakes that your spell checker won’t find.

Here are some examples of commonly misused words:

Affect/effect
“Affect” is a verb meaning to influence. (Example: The economic forecast will affect our projected income.)
“Effect” is a noun meaning the result or outcome. (Example: What is the effect of the proposal?)
Then/than
“Then” is typically an adverb indicating a sequence in time. (Example: We went to dinner, then we saw a movie.)
“Than” is a conjunction used for comparison. (Example: The dinner was more expensive than the movie.)
Your/you’re
“Your” is a possessive. (Example: Is that your file?)
“You’re” is a contraction of “you are.” (Example: You’re the new manager.)
Note: Also watch out for other common homophones (words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings) – such as their/they’re/there, to/too/two, and so on.
Its/it’s
“Its” is a possessive. (Example: Is that its motor?)
“It’s” is a contraction of “It is.” (Example: It’s often that heavy.) (Yes, it is this way around!)
Company’s/companies (and other possessives versus plurals)
“Company’s” indicates possession. (Example: The company’s trucks hadn’t been maintained properly.)
“Companies” is plural. (Example: The companies in this industry are suffering.)

To learn more about commonly misused words, misused apostrophes, and other grammatical errors, take our Bite-Sized Training session on Written Communication.

Tip:
Some of your readers – arguably an increasing number – won’t be perfect at spelling and grammar. They may not notice if you make these errors. But don’t use this as an excuse: there will usually be people, senior managers in particular, who WILL notice!

Because of this, everything you write should be of a quality that every reader will find acceptable.
Proofing

The enemy of good proofreading is speed. Many people rush through their documents, but this is how you miss mistakes. Follow these guidelines to check what you’ve written:

Proof your headers and subheaders – People often skip these and focus on the text alone. Just because headers are big and bold doesn’t mean they’re error free!
Read the document out loud – This forces you to go more slowly, so that you’re more likely to catch mistakes.
Use your finger to follow text as you read – This is another trick that helps you slow down.
Start at the end of your document – Proofread one sentence at a time, working your way from the end to the beginning. This helps you focus on errors, not on content.

Key Points

More than ever, it’s important to know how to communicate your point quickly and professionally. Many people spend a lot of time writing and reading, so the better you are at this form of communication, the more successful you’re likely to be.

Identify your audience before you start creating your document. And if you feel that there’s too much information to include, create an outline to help organize your thoughts. Learning grammatical and stylistic techniques will also help you write more clearly; and be sure to proof the final document. Like most things, the more you write, the better you’re going to be!


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An Interesting Article: How Engineers Can Improve Technical Writing

 

September 2012

 

Even though engineers are technical people, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are good technical writers.

“Technical writing involves two key competencies,” indicates Atul Mathur, a professional engineer and technical copywriter in Singapore. “The first is the ability to understand technical language; the second is being able to express that knowledge in a clear, concise, and coherent manner.”

Dan Jones, a professor of English at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who offers technical writing workshops to engineering groups, doesn’t believe technical writing “or any kind of writing for that matter, comes naturally to anyone,” he says. “Some people are better writers than others, but their skills are typically acquired over a long period of time with much practice and hard work.”

Even so, engineers do have some advantages when it comes to technical communication. They are detail-oriented, bright, demanding, and not intimidated by levels of technicality. “They want to know how and why something works, but like students in other college majors, they face similar challenges in communicating this technical knowledge clearly and effectively,” says Jones.

Modular Writing

Since the Great Recession, every business is trying to do more with less. For engineers, this means training budgets have been slashed and they have to produce an increasing number of written documents themselves.

“These include trip reports, proposals, status reports, meeting minutes, reports documenting site visits, and lab experiments,” states Gary Blake, director of the Communication Workshop in Great Neck, NY, and author of The Elements of Technical Writing. “In my 25 years of teaching seminars in technical writing, I have met very few engineers who are comfortable with using simple language, organizing documents for the readers’ benefit, keeping sentences and paragraphs short, and getting to the point.”

One method of dealing with the increased volume of reporting is “modular writing.” Many companies are moving away from individually authored technical documents to team-authored modules of information.

“These modules—each reduced typically to single topics—are then reused in a wide variety of company documents,” says Jones. “One technique is Darwin Information Typing Architecture, or DITA. This modular writing, once successfully implemented, can save a company thousands of dollars in documentation costs.”

Sometimes engineers try to circumvent technical writing by misusing PowerPoint and other presentation software, overloading technical presentations with data instead of explaining what it means in clear and concise language.

“I just worked with a group of 30 engineers to help them make more effective technical presentations,” says Jones. “PowerPoint as a medium is designed for simplicity with, ideally, the individual slides serving as prompts for the speaker, not as handouts for the audience. But many technical professionals crowd far too much information on almost every slide. And, in many cases, various company protocols or practices require them to provide all of this information in this manner.”

Simplicity in Complexity

Engineers often find it difficult to communicate their technical knowledge to audiences that have less technical backgrounds. For example, engineers must write reports and convey the essential technical details for managers—often a tough challenge because many managers don’t understand the technology.

“The greatest issue is the inability to see simplicity in complexity,” says Mathur. “How can they strip away the complexity of a process or system and present it in a way that others can understand, with minimum effort? After all, technical writing is not just about language skills—it’s also about how we think.”

There is no substitute for training—one-on-one, webinar, seminar, or having instant access to a subject expert or mentor. A webinar has the advantage of being inexpensive and convenient. “A team or department of engineers take a 90-minute online class that reviews writing samples, gives writing exercises, answers questions, and offers future access to an instructor,” says Blake.

Technical communication is essential for career advancement for all technical professionals.

“Mastering the content of a discipline is, of course, important, but this subject expertise becomes much more valuable and marketable if you know how to communicate your subject expertise to a variety of audiences in numerous kinds of technical documents and technical presentations,” says Jones.

Mark Crawford is an independent writer.