The past was a simpler time.
Has there ever been a truer sentiment with regard to just about every aspect of modern life? In the workplace, in particular, we’ve already seen the simple career formula become obsolete: A bachelor’s degree plus 30 years on the job used to equal a guaranteed pension and retirement bliss. Today, if a young person would even want to spend his or her entire career in one place, there’s certainly no guarantee an employer would want that let alone subsidize retirement.
In the engineering field, it’s no different, despite a history in which Baby Boomers were able to forge long, stable careers in the big-four engineering disciplines (civil, mechanical, industrial, and electrical). Engineering opportunity, of course, is still there. In fact, over the next decade, demand for engineers is expected to grow by 11 percent, with the National Association of Colleges and Employers reporting that engineering majors currently rank second in the most in-demand skill sets.
But make no mistake; this is not the your father’s engineering environment where a seemingly simple, straightforward set of technical skills was all it took to be successful. Along with the current growing demand for engineers comes a very different set of expectations from employers.
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It’s not just a matter of technical skills anymore — though they are still important. Across all industries today, every employer looks for candidates with the more elusive soft skills. Even with an abundance of jobs, this new dynamic is making the engineering labor market competitive in new ways, as we begin to understand that a job well done often requires far more intangible inputs in the way we relate to people and circumstances. So if engineers can master a dynamic set of both technical and soft skills, employers will consider them as far more valuable team members and job candidates.
How, exactly, can engineers master this evolving frontier? How can they differentiate themselves with soft skills to complement traditional pedigrees and technical abilities?
To start, there must be a fundamental shift in the way we understand how work is getting done in the engineering environment today. There are important movements in play, including an increasingly multigenerational workforce and a global business climate in which project work with mobile teams is becoming the norm.
On the daily grind of the job, every engineer is now likely to encounter colleagues who’ve just graduated from college as well as seasoned professionals with years of experience. In this dynamic, there is a huge range of perceptions of what work is supposed to be. Baby Boomers are likely to be far more traditional in keeping their work and social lives separate, while Millennials are far more likely to think of work as an extension of their lifestyles.
Employees who can bridge their communication styles with all kinds of colleagues are valuable to employers, who are equally challenged by this dynamic, multigenerational mix of workers as well. For example, the intangible skill of being able to adapt communication styles to a particular situation while being able to express oneself clearly and professionally in every instance is extremely valuable to an engineer navigating the new workplace reality.
The new reality for how work is actually getting done is also a critical factor in engineering today. There is more and more collaboration on a global basis. A civil engineer might, indeed, find himself or herself working with a team thousands of miles away on any given project. Differences in language and culture will invariably collide, but an employee who can’t adapt won’t be able to collaborate well.
As the project-centric world of work continues to unfold, engineers who can navigate the pitfalls of these situations will be extremely valuable to employers. To a large extent, employers already know that you’ll have the technical skills, coming into the job. For them, the questions of who will and won’t be successful on the job are likely to revolve around intangible skills. Does a prospective engineer have the ability to collaborate and bring team members together? Is he able to solve complex problems that aren’t necessarily technical in nature? Is she able to bring creative thinking to the table that will drive future innovation?