12 Skills You Need to Advance an Engineering Career: Part 1

Apr 16, 2018

by Agam Shah Associate Editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine

Engineers excel at solving problems, but developing soft skills to enhance careers isn't always a top priority. Scoring an interview means you have the technical chops. After that, it's all about marketing yourself, asking the right questions, making good connections, and choosing the paths that lead toward career goals. Without those, you're just another number in a large crowd of engineers.

Many recent grads like Jordan Duhe, a design engineer at Noble Plastics in Grand Coteau, LA, picked up key intangibles on the job, with college providing a good educational base. Colleges like Missouri University of Science and Technology organize projects and competitions so students develop skills like negotiation, teamwork and presentation, says Christopher Ramsay, the university's assistant vice provost for student design.

Don’t be just another engineer. Here are 12 soft skills you should develop to succeed in your job interviews and career.

Even when you are negotiating for a salary, you are selling yourself. Salloum Nicole, Capgemini consultant

Practice your communications and presentation skills. Explain concepts crisply and clearly.

1) Communicate: Communication is perhaps the biggest challenge for engineers, but it’s also the most important skill to pick up for a successful career. For some it's natural, for others it comes via practice and being more social. "You've got to learn it as you go," says Brandon Graham, experiential learning lab supervisor at Rowan Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, who started developing his communication skills at the college level. "I wanted to be involved in clubs, and the only way to do that was to be more social," Graham says. Engineers may relate to books like Dale Carnegie's Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking, which provides a methodical and structured way to pick up communication skills.

2) Presentation: Avoid jargon. Work on simplifying and crisply explaining concepts, says Carlos Beatty, engineer and member of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' corporate leadership development program. "When you are in front of management and people and they start to question, how do you deal with that?” Beatty says. “It's one thing to give a presentation and be questioned, another thing to give a presentation and be challenged." For a management position, the ability to pull your ideas together and sway opinion is key. Brush up on Powerpoint too.

Learn a few interviewing basics that will help you nail that dream job!

3) Sell yourself: In the professional world, you are selling all the time, whether it’s ideas, answers, jobs, or products, says Nicole Salloum, a consultant at Capgemini and professional trainer at ASME. "Even when you are negotiating for a salary, you are selling yourself," Salloum says. One of the best ways to sell yourself is to prove yourself. Volunteer for additional assignments or projects that will add to your skills, advance your career, and allow you to work with some of the company’s shining stars and key players.

4) Don’t be just another engineer: If you score an engineering job interview, it’s assumed you have technical competence. But companies really want differentiators. You could be a rock-star with a high GPA, but your importance boils down to the value you provide to a company. Value needs to be built, and it can start in job interviews, where good questions could impress interviewers, says Noble Plastic's Duhe. Engineers with finance and technology skills are also highly sought.

5) Negotiate your value: Rookies can’t go in and demand a salary, but they can negotiate a position that could lead to higher pay in the future. That’s tied to the earlier point of differentiating yourself from others and not being just another face in the crowd. "If you negotiate your position, that's different. In three years, you know your position and have a good projection, that’s when you put yourself at a point of leverage,” Beatty says. “The purpose of leverage is so you know you have value. You know what that monetary value is so you can differentiate. Without that, you're just another number.”

6) Self-confidence: Self-confidence is all about showing what you’re capable of doing, but building that can be challenging. For Salloum, it meant doing new things. She took on a big challenge when she applied for a job working on the supply chain for a spirits company. "They are always afraid to send women - for example to bars - for sales,” Salloum says. “Owners of bars may be more comfortable talking about this man to man."

See Part 2 of “12 Skills You Need to Advance an Engineering Career” for more tips such as learning humility, creating your own brand, and the power of networking.