Tips for EE Students on Getting Skills They Need for the Workplace

IEEE-USA book offers practical ways to become a better communicator

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THE INSTITUTEAs a new college graduate, you might think all you need to get a job is a killer résumé that shows you can master the position’s technical aspects. But you also need to become adept at communicating with people, according to Harry T. Roman, the author of a new IEEE-USA e-book, Transitioning From Student to Engineer. The e-book costs US $4.99, but IEEE members can buy it for $2.99.

Roman, who is retired, spent more than 30 years as project manager for the R&D group of Public Service Electric and Gas Co. in Newark, N.J. He recently finished a three-year term serving on the advisory board at his alma mater, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, also in Newark. That experience, he wrote in the book’s forward, showed him that many of the school’s budding engineers didn’t see the value of acquiring skills such as project management, team building, and coaching.

Over time, he says, just 15 percent of an engineer’s job involves technical skills. The rest requires professional or people skills.

Once mastered, professional and soft skills never become obsolete, he says: They are always relevant in the workplace.

Roman cites several studies whose findings support the need for new engineers to master such skills. Google conducted a survey on what skills its employees will need to fulfill the company’s mission and goals. They include being a good coach, having empathy toward and being supportive of colleagues, and becoming a good critical thinker and problem solver.

The results of a study by McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ont., Canada, about what skills employers are looking for in new hires showed critical thinking, communications, and awareness about cultural perspectives were in demand. Nearly all the companies surveyed said a candidate’s capacity for thinking and communicating clearly, as well as the person’s ability to solve complex problems, were more important than what subject they majored in.

START EARLY

Students should start planning for their engineering career as early as their sophomore year, Roman says. Attend school events where seasoned engineers and representatives from engineering companies talk about their work. Those speakers are often alumni, whom Roman calls “little pockets of gold.”

“They are naturally interested in the next generation and have keen insights into what is happening in the field,” he says. Plus, they are always on the lookout for promising talent, and they could end up hiring you. Roman recommends networking with them and discussing the class projects you’re working on.

Get a part-time job or apply for internships at engineering firms, he recommends: “Employers tend to place more value on graduates who have relevant workplace experience. You’ll gain valuable experience about the rhythms and routines of engineering work.” Plus, an internship can give you practical skills, workplace experience, and a greater knowledge of the industry. Most companies expect candidates to have had at least one internship, he says.

Professors are another resource. Ask them if you can help with their research. “Becoming a team member is another way to perform meaningful work that will advance your understanding of the profession,” Roman says.

He suggests reading as much as you can about the engineering profession. He recommends books by Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University. Petroski has written nearly a dozen publications, on topics such as the evolution of everyday items, the history of America’s infrastructure, and design failures.

Also read what your professors have written about the profession, and consider subscribing to the publications they get. The literature can help you gain insights into how engineers solve problems and how they incorporate social, environmental, and other concerns into their decisions.

Join a professional engineering organization such as IEEE. There are nearly 3,300 IEEE student branches at colleges and universities in more than 100 countries. Student members organize events, work on humanitarian projects, and attend conferences.

To build up your oral and written communication skills, offer to write summaries of your professors’ research, write articles for your school newspaper, volunteer to give tours of your campus, or work at special events the school holds.

Those already in the workforce can polish their speaking skills by offering to give talks on their company’s behalf at schools and professional organizations. If your company has a speaker’s bureau, join it. You might want to check out another of Roman’s e-books, Public Speaking for Engineers.

If you’re put in charge of leading a team, your newly acquired communication skills are likely to come in handy. Good communication is the glue that unites a team, says Roman, who estimates that 75 percent of new products fail because of poor team communication.

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