Essential Engineering Skills Your Professors Never Taught You Might Just Set You Apart
In our line of work, street smarts are just as important as book smarts, and we don’t just mean knowing how to design a road! We’re talking about essential engineering skills like communications, customer service, business sense, team dynamics, and political savvy. These are rarely taught or learned in school, but they can also make or break a civil engineering project.
We know them when we see them. We also know they don’t come naturally to everyone. Fortunately, essential engineering skills, sometimes referred to as soft skills, are possible to teach and practice. Up-and-coming engineers can stand out in the field by starting early, being a little bit vulnerable, and learning from mentors and role models.
We’ve outlined the top five essential engineering skills we look for and help develop in our new hires and emerging leaders.
- Customer Service
- Team Dynamics / Collaboration
- Business Sense
- Political Savvy
Even though we sometimes call them “engineering soft skills,” we don’t think “soft” means easy or unimportant. Quite the contrary. When we say “soft” we really mean nuanced and non-technical. These are essential engineering skills that may be less quantifiable and even more challenging for some to master, but they are no less critical to winning and delivering the best project work possible.
Customer service is at the heart of our values as articulated by our founder, Ed Robinson. He emphasized, “this company was not built to pursue wealth. It was built to satisfy our clients’ needs.”
When we say customer service, we mean every day, all the time, and by everyone in the company That requires absolute responsiveness and a commitment to listening. It means open lines of communication (covered further below) and earnest accountability.
It also means bringing our best counsel and questions to the table, which can present an interesting balancing challenge for folks newer to essential engineering skills. That’s why we spend time training and mentoring, and we reward those willing to make the effort, even when they fail because failure should be considered a learning opportunity.
No matter how exceptional our technical skills are or how tangible our design and construction work is, the work we do always depends just as much on the people we work with and for. But in engineering school, almost everything is done individually.
Learning how to collaborate with colleagues and work in teams, how to get the most out of others, and how to support the professionals around us invariably happens in real-time on the job. To accomplish these essential engineering skills takes emotional intelligence.
According to an article in PsychCentral titled “How Can I Improve Emotional Intelligence (EQ), “Intelligence (IQ), in the general sense, is the ability to learn new concepts and apply your knowledge to problems. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is similar. It’s the ability to learn about yourself and apply that wisdom to the world around you.”
We look for and help develop emotional intelligence in the engineers we hire. It’s one of the most valuable engineering soft skills you can bring to the table for successful projects and opportunities throughout your career.
Communication skills are important in virtually every business setting. But with the type of complex problems we solve and projects on which we work, it becomes even more fundamental. Engineers focus on very specific analytical and technical problem-solving skills in school. They wouldn’t be engineers without that. But how does the work really get done? It takes communication skills at every turn.
On the job, the communication challenge is twofold. It’s about interacting with people from colleagues to customers to vendors and authorities. It’s also about communicating facts, details, and opinions in written documents. Communication –both written and verbal– is an important skill that engineers must master.
It’s not just what but also how we say or write, it. We must think about the precision, tone, and language in all of our communications. And it’s not just about who we’re talking to, it’s where the communication takes place, what we document, and when we follow up.
In this article titled “12 Essential Engineering Skills for Your Resume,” Indeed puts Communications at number eight. We think it’s higher. Without communication skills, engineers can get frustrated, stuck, and miss the big picture of what we’re trying to accomplish. At E.L. Robinson, we put a great deal of focus on developing and practicing strong communication skills.
Having a strong business sense means everything from understanding budget consciousness to practicing customer-centric design. It means knowing the goal of every project, when to stop seeking perfection and proceed, and how to make a business case for a decision.
Engineers are really good at details, and because of that, they sometimes miss the big picture, especially when they’re fresh out of school, where the details are the only focus. Here in the “real world” every decision and action can have an impact on every other part of the system and process.
This is another essential engineering skill that doesn’t get discussed much in engineering school. Here is where having a role model and/or mentor can really make a difference to professionals entering the civil engineering marketplace. If you can watch and learn, be curious and observant, you will go a long way toward honing your business sense.
Understanding the role politics can play in securing civil engineering contracts and moving projects forward is another one of our top five essential engineering skills. What do we mean when we say “political savvy”?
We’re talking about anything from knowing Federal and State regulations and how the political landscape may be evolving and government funding programs provided for public works, to know who the political players are, where they stand, and what motivates them. We need to understand the legislative and budgeting process in government and how policies influence infrastructure and design.
Importantly, it’s essential to be very thoughtful about what we speak out for or against publicly: this is not an area where we encourage risk-taking, as the stakes can be high. Remember, when you’re building bridges, you never want to burn one.
So now that you know what soft skills are important for engineering, how do you go about establishing these essential engineering skills? As we’ve mentioned, it’s very important to observe them in practice and practice them yourself.
Here are three ways we support the process:
Giving you a chance to practice these engineering soft skills is the only way to build them. Group projects, collaboration, and day-to-day communication are at the core of how we work. We also encourage volunteer work, which can be a great way to give back while developing your soft skills at the same time.
At E.L. Robinson, we allow you the grace to take measured risks and fail sometimes. It’s all part of the learning process. These are those “teachable moments” you’ve heard about. We’ll never throw you into the deep end alone, and we won’t punish you for your earnest college try.
These essential engineering skills are so crucial for our success that we’ve established systems to support their development. We focus on what really matters in our metrics and create a structure of accountability to identify and measure growth. It’s never about busy-work, rather, it’s about tracking and demonstrating progress.
If you want to hear more about how we apply engineering soft skills in the field, talk about an engineering job opportunity, or if you have a project you think we could help you with, please contact us to get the conversation started.