8 Essential Soft Skills for Engineers


September 27, 2021 - Dom Barnard

Summary: This article outlines eight essential soft skills for engineers, that can increase your 'employability', professional respect, and value, as well as boosting your job satisfaction.

"It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who survive but those who can best manage change." - Charles Darwin.

Designing, developing, testing, evaluating and maintaining software or hardware requires a wide range of technical abilities. However, engineers are also called on to work directly with clients - and in collaborative situations – to build specs, agree on modifications and deliver system updates.

Whether you're creating business solutions or games, network control systems or middleware, there are times when you need to communicate and manage team dynamics. At the very least, you must be articulate in interviews, and you may even need to deliver compelling presentations to investors in your own engineering venture one day!

Added to this, is the high-pressure situations you face, with deadlines, complex specs and last-minute problems. How do you manage your own reactions, and mobilise and motivate your team in times of change or challenge?

If you think all this rests solely on your technical abilities as an engineer, re-read the introduction and you can already see that soft skills play an important part in your success.

The value placed on soft skills in engineering roles

'Soft' skills are sometimes described as power skills. They're not as easy to evaluate or quantify as engineering qualifications but are equally vital to your career.

Does that claim sound inflated?

To provide some context for the growing importance of soft skills, a study showed that 97% of UK employers believe they are crucial for business success. Though interestingly, only 37% of the employers found these skills within entry-level candidates.

To drive the point home, another study by Harvard University, Stanford Research Center and the Carnegie Foundation concluded that technical abilities count for only 15% of success in any job role. The rest comes from soft skills and interpersonal abilities.

Engineering pivots on collaboration and project management and you may want to go freelance or start your own business. Having extensive knowledge of technical design, programming languages, hardware development and computer operating systems, will only get you so far. After that, you need these eight essential soft skills for engineers.

Soft skills for F1 team meeting

Photo source.

1. Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence describes understanding your own characteristics and developing an affinity with colleagues, clients and other contacts. It is the basis of many of the other soft skills engineers need.

The word often used in this context is empathy. By investing more time in understanding others, you develop the ability to respond to them on far more levels.

An example of empathy in action would be getting a more drilled down brief from clients, by investing time in getting to know their concerns, commercial pains, and their vision for the future.

If it's a complex project of significant commercial value, modifications to legacy systems that companies depend on, or expensive R&D projects to transform a client's IT, showing empathy and understanding can carry you a long way in meetings.

In engineering project teams, empathy would be spotting when colleagues are struggling and finding ways to motivate and support them.

In both cases, you get greater efficiency, a better final outcome, and the basis of good leadership abilities (see below).

Emotional intelligence with regard to your own personality helps you to:

  • Find areas for improvement
  • Focus on strengths you can build on
  • Explore what motivates you
  • Manage your energy levels
  • Cope better under pressure
  • Become more of a 'team player'
  • Create a personal development plan and engage with training and coaching.

2. Leadership and collaborative abilities

Even if you don't currently lead technology teams, there are times you'll need to show leadership abilities in order to advance your projects and career. Such as, when you need to orchestrate the contribution of multiple departments or third parties, as well as diverse engineering team members.

What's the difference between management and leadership skills?

Management is about doing tasks in an organised, timely and logical way, and making sure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities.

Leadership in STEM fields is using emotional intelligence to get the best out of yourself and those you work with. Including providing motivation, recognition and support.

"A sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have, but how many leaders you create." - Gandhi.

3. Listening skills

This is something inherent in leadership, emotional intelligence and good communications; the ability to listen 'properly'.

No matter how technically advanced you are, you will need to consult others, mobilise teams and liaise with those who commission your engineering skills. Good listening is not simply staying silent while they talk or reading their written communications well.

It involves using your body language, verbal prompts, or insightful questions to grow the information available to you. As well drilling down on more layers of business intel, you can start to fully appreciate the motivations and goals of colleagues, clients and other parties.

Showing yourself to be open to feedback – and calm in the face of criticism – can be highly advantageous. Project team members are more likely to flag up issues earlier, so you can get ahead of them. You will also find people discuss their ideas with you more readily, helping to grow your ability to innovate on engineering projects.

4. Written and verbal communications

No matter what your level of technical ability in engineering, this is the most obvious soft skill you need. It's also the easiest to advance using training and practice.

There will always be a need for you to inform, educate, influence and persuade. Verbally within presentations, team briefings, client feedback sessions or demonstrations of new systems. Every email, report and project spec you write, needs to be an effective communication tool.

One of the best tips is not to launch immediately into the details. Start from the end – what result are you hoping to achieve? Also, what level of understanding does your audience have, and what do they want to know?

Then, create communications that are succinct, clear and compelling.

5. Negotiation skills, and diffusing project conflict

This soft skill that engineers need follows naturally from the one above. Much of your communications will be to secure approval for your aims, methods and planned modifications. Or to mobilise project teams and keep them cohesive and consistent.

Using your newly honed emotional intelligence and communication skills, you can negotiate better in engineering roles. Finding compromises and solutions more readily.

You will also spot dissent and disinterest quicker, and become more agile in offsetting both, as well as using conflict resolution skills to stop projects from hitting brick walls.

6. Creativity and vision

One of the many advantages of improving your communications skills in engineering jobs is that you will be better able to translate your ideas, concepts and end goals into something your different audiences can understand.

You can also engage them better and demonstrate your ability to innovate to secure more 'buy-in'.

If you can unite a project team around a shared vision, you can get the 'nuts and bolts' tasks done better, quicker and in a more cohesive way.

7. Problem-solving

You could put this firmly in the 'hard skills' column, as clearly, your everyday work will entail problem-solving. However, it extends beyond the complexities of software or hardware design, testing, updating and maintenance.

As a soft skill, problem-solving runs through many of the other power skills in this list. If you face dissent or disengagement within a project team, how can you overcome that? If a project is running into difficulties and you need more resources, how best can you secure the backing of all involved parties?

8. Adaptability and staying positive

Sometimes, problem-solving in engineering roles relies on you being ready to admit you need additional knowledge and skills to get the job done. This is part of being versatile and adaptable as an engineer, constantly updating your understanding of software, your technical abilities and the resources you need.

It even extends to being ready to take responsibility when delays and other problems occur. It is amazing how well you can manage project issues, by being open, staying positive and focusing on solutions.

It is a workplace attitude that secures you a reputation for being consistent, reliable and honest too. All highly valued by decision-makers.

What can I do to gain soft skills as an engineer?

Your existing personality plays a part in building power skills.

No one is suggesting you must become a polished presenter, inspiring leader and world-beating innovator. If you prefer to follow a niche path in engineering or focus on a manageable level of competence in those essential soft skills, that's fine.

By 2024, Evans Data Corporation's 'Data's Global Developer Population and Demographics Study' predicts there will be 28.7 million people engaged in creating software globally. The jobs are certainly there to support that hypothesis.

The question is, how do you stand out as an engineer, and get the best jobs, with the most exciting prospects?

By using training, coaching and self-development activities to build essential soft skills for engineers, alongside keeping up to date with technological advances.