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6 Nontechnical Skills Engineers Need

6 Nontechnical Skills Engineers Need

To navigate and find success in today’s workplace, engineers need skills that go beyond the traditional job description. Luckily, most of these—such as communication—can be learned.
Technical skills are of utmost importance for engineers, but other vital skills include critical reasoning and adaptability, and willingness to grow and nurture interpersonal relationships. As engineers’ roles continue to evolve, these qualities will become even more important.
Here are the top six skills that engineers need to cultivate throughout their work lives.

Critical thinking

Engineers must think critically to separate important details from the infinite stream of information available at their fingertips every day. It means making observations and teasing out what actually matters to build arguments that build upon an explanation, and asking how to get to grips with a subject.

“Critical thinking means being able to think for yourself, to ask what is really going on in the world,” said Tom Chatfield, author of How to Think and technology advisor at Agathos LLP, a British technical investment management firm. “The way even the smartest people think is astonishingly vulnerable to bias and manipulation.”

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Thankfully, it's a set of skills that can be taught and practiced, said Colin Drummond, chair of the biomedical engineering department at Case Western Reserve University. He has written about and advocates a team-based learning approach to grow skills in this area.

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This is the capability to see a subject from a neutral point of view, and the way autonomous thinkers and researchers study and analyze, said Stuart Walesh, a licensed professional engineer and author of Creativity and Innovation for Engineers.
“Objectivity involves setting aside one’s own feelings and biases to establish the actual facts of the matter,” he said.
This skill can also be taught and grows with time, as engineers grow their experiences. “At first, however, it’s difficult and achingly unnatural,” Walesh said.

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Engineering projects are often overly complex or expensive, said Ikhlaq Sidhu, director of the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley. After “years of observing students who have engineered novel technologies and companies,” he believes engineers can work together to innovate, to create a story that explains a project in narrative form.

Innovators want to create something new, not just update an existing product, he said. This means being able to explain to others what is worth doing and why it’s a good idea, and then getting others to agree and help you. Innovators are also comfortable with ambiguity and with experiences outside their comfort zone, such as speaking with investors and navigating new technologies, Sidhu said.

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This kind of process can be learned. Engineers need to be creative and collaborative, as they learn to be better innovative thinkers along the way, Sidhu said.


Engineers communicate every day with colleagues, higher ups, and potential customers, said Anthony Fasano, head of talent acquisition at Cruise, a company that is building advanced self-driving vehicles to provide self-driving service. “Everything you do is listening, talking, and interacting with people,” he said. But communication goes beyond just speaking directly to others.

At Rice University, the engineering communications program prepares engineers to communicate across different means: written, oral, and digital, and for a variety of purposes, said Tracy Volz, director of the engineering communications program at Rice University.

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“We want our engineers to be comfortable with things like technical memos and proposals used in industry,” she said.

Public speaking

Some engineers struggle to find the courage to speak in front of others. But many will need to hone this skill as managers and leaders, and for networking, Fasano said. To make improvements, “push yourself out of your comfort zone with things like Toastmasters International,” a program that helps teach public speaking skills and strategies to professionals.
Each speaking experience can generate additional confidence as well, he noted. “Communication skills can be taught, but you need to be confident in your own abilities to express yourself,” Fasano said.

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Natalie Fratto, a startup investor, looks to see how adaptable founders are to growth and change. A high “adaptability quotient” is something that can also help engineers succeed, she said. One sign of a high “AQ” is what she calls unlearning.
“Active unlearners seek to challenge what they presume they know and instead, override that data with new information,” she said.
Of course, engineers will have to possess other nontechnical skills than those listed above, and each of the above skills may be needed in greater or lesser amounts, depending on the job. Gone is the stereotype of engineers sitting alone behind their desks. As their work branches beyond the technical, their skills must follow.
Jean Thilmany is a science and technology writer in Saint Paul, Minn.

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