- By Kerry Hannon
EDUCATORS ARE STRUGGLING TO PREPARE WELL-ROUNDED ENGINEERS
FOR TODAY'S WORKPLACE
"What do you think is the most important attribute
of a leader?"
"How have you applied that in your school and
"Have you ever had to introduce an idea or concept
to people who did not agree with you?"
"With all these projects and extracurricular activities,
how do you manage your time?"
"TELL ME ABOUT IT."
These are not engineering questions. These are life questions. And
these are the types of queries likely to come from corporate recruiters
on college campuses in the hunt for the cream of engineering graduates.
Think of it as our own survival show, says Ken Lawrence, senior vice
president of utility powerhouse Exelon Corp. and president of PECO
Energy Co. in Philadelphia.
" If we were having our own survival show, there are certain
skills you really need to survive here," he says. Start with
speed, followed by a firm understanding of business and finance. Finish
with the ability to explain what you are doing throughout the project
to people who aren't engineers and get them involved in the process,
It's the curse of the tribe. Engineers are just doomed to a
stereotype that they haven't been able to shake free of for years.
In the past, engineering educators haven't done much to help
these fledgling graduates promote their cause outside of university
inner sanctums. They have understandably relied on coursework heavy
on technical analysis.
And that is still crucial. "We count on schools to graduate
technically qualified people," says Jerry Bischof, director of
nuclear engineering for Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Resources. "These
graduates come out with phenomenal computer skills. They grew up with
computers, and it shows."
In 1995, the Engineering Criteria 2000 of the Accreditation Board
for Engineering and Technology (ABET) put forth a rough draft of its
mandate to educators to design curriculums that can produce engineers
with the right skill sets to enter the job market. Now seven years
later, what's the scorecard? How successful has it been? Have
educators taken the recommendations to heart? How is it being implemented?
Is there an underlying tension lurking between the two worlds of supply
It was no mistake that ABET's 2000 criteria flag this all-important
skill blanketly called "communication." "Not only
does the job have to get done in record time, you have to get your
point across, and it's not going to be based on trust," says
" It's not just, ‘Trust me this is the way we have
to do this,'" according to Lawrence. You have to work in
the early stages getting feedback from various teams impacted by the
changes and then work on the back end explaining your actions and how
you got there, he says.
There are survivors in Exelon's world, Lawrence is happy to
report. Engineers do exist who can actually be conversant and engage
with others. They play nicely. They're creative and, truth be
known, have even been known to be funny. These are skills that they
are learning in their classrooms and on project teams.
The curriculums at many colleges, universities, and corporations
have been tweaked and even overhauled in some cases in response to
ABET's criteria. The quandary appears to be how fast the new
approaches are being woven into the coursework. In general, there's
a frustration on both sides that change isn't happening fast
enough and constraints of budgets continue to hamper efforts.
It's not so much that academics are loath to make adjustments
in the way engineers are educated. You'd be hard-pressed to find
anyone in either court to say that producing well-rounded students
is not an admirable goal. It's that nagging dilemma of what is
going to work within the confines of individual engineering schools.
The most difficult piece to address, interestingly enough, has been
basic human communication tools. The Achilles' heel here is that
schools are just not quite sure what the best methods to teach communications
skills are likely to be and how to execute them without undo expense.
In all fairness, the type of person that is attracted to engineering
is not necessarily the one who is the life of the party and naturally
proficient at this set of skills.
" When we do a psychological test using the Myers-Brigg personality
evaluation tool, it's clear that engineers as a whole tend to
be introverts rather than extroverts," says Dominion's
Bischof. There's a lack of comfort with engineers in general
in large groups or in public-speaking situations." In Dominion's
nuclear program, for instance, it's important that engineers
are at ease in the field and introducing themselves into different
groups of people. That's the only way they are going to be able
to glean information that will help them do their jobs.
Dominion, like other companies surveyed, has had to learn to cope
with smaller numbers of engineers on their payrolls. With keener competition
in the industry, cost-cutting has inevitably resulted in fewer engineers
to tackle the tasks at hand. "We rely on quality people to help
us compete at this level, and they have to be able to commu-nicate
easily," says Bischof.
The business world just can't get by anymore on that old-school
engineer working independently behind closed doors. Today, job ads
in newspapers across the country for engineers plainly, boldly, and
explicitly state that candidates must have excellent organizational
and effective communications skills.
An understanding and experience dealing with engineering practices
and principles will only get you so far. Engineers must be well-versed
in technical writing and the know-how to deftly make an oral presentation
to a group of clients or co-workers. People skills, glad-handing, creative
consensus building, business acumen, and, yes, real-world survival
skills are de rigueur for those engineers regardless of the discipline.
Joke telling isn't a prerequisite, but you have to be able to
interface with engineers and all levels of the organization, period.
The hue and cry is there, all right, that changes need to be made
at a greater speed, and it's not going away any time soon. Loria
Yeadon, a patent attorney for a major corporation who holds a master's
in electrical engineering, pounds the table with the rest of the business
world. "Engineers need to broaden their skill sets," she
says. "Technical competence can only get you so far with solutions."
Today's engineers have to be business-minded and understand
legal issues as well as the nuts and bolts of engineering tasks, she
says. Even more critical in her eyes is being able to work alongside
and report to people from other cultures. "It's a multifaceted
engineering candidate that will fare well in today's corporate
environment," says Yeadon. A successful engineer must have knowledge
of marketing, law, and communication to augment the analytical discipline.
Put it this way: "You can't have blinders on and sit
in a lab," she expounds. "It's not a one-dimensional
job." For example, engineers need to understand the importance
of protecting the technology that they are creating. If they don't,
they are missing a critical requirement of their job.
But Yeadon, like other corporate executives interviewed, realizes
that universities are not going to be able to allocate the resources
to create full-blown courses in the humanities for their engineers-to-be.
Rather, they should consider ways to augment their learning of the
basics with tutorials from other disciplines or visiting professors
from the corporate world. Some institutions have these offerings already
in place. Others are still exploring the concept but are open to the
Slow to Change
For academics, it's not a lack of effort or desire to introduce
these softer skills into the rigorous mix. "I think universities
are honestly trying to change and work closely with corporations to
do so, but I'm not sure that the process has been set up to allow
them to change as fast as business is," says Exelon's Lawrence. "They
need to step back and leap frog in order to get into the swing. It's
a real challenge for them," he says.
The dilemma is palpable. It's frustrating, says Michael J.
Demetsky, professor and chair of the University of Virginia's
department of civil engineering. "Absolutely, we need to improve
the communication skills of our graduates. But as a state university,
we're very research focused. That requires more practical applications,
more design work, more theoretical and less practical knowledge in
some cases," he says. In the meantime, the university's
finances ultimately play a major role in just how many courses in the
humanities can feasibly be offered to engineering undergraduates from
a staffing perspective, says Demetsky.
The important thing is that both sides are talking to each other.
Dominion, for example, has an aggressive program in place to work its
relationships with a number of universities diligently. Dominion's
management-level executives do the recruiting on college campuses and
screen the potential hires. That's one way we can really judge
communi-cation skills, says Dominion's Bischof.
Bischof recently visited Virginia Tech to interview candidates for
10 slots. In total, there were 100 résumés that met the
cut-off for an on-campus interview. After an interview, half of the
candidates were flat-out rejected because of their lack of communi-cations
skills. That information was fed back to the university. "Advisers
and department heads are receptive to our input," he says.
For American Management Systems, a global information technology
consulting outfit based in Fairfax, Va., hard-core engineering analytical
skills and problem-solving capabilities are the manna. That said, communication
finesse is impossible to ignore. "In the past, the engineers
and tech types were locked away in rooms and kept apart from clients," says
Mark Clark, AMS college recruiting and university-relations manager. "Now
we need the technical people to have communication skills to verbalize
and write so everyone can understand the scope of the project."
So true. Listen to IBM's Christine Dunbar, a manager in the
Microelectronics Division. "Ten years ago on campus, I think
the pervasive feeling was that diversity of education (through taking
courses in business) was a good way to bolster an engineering résumé if
the technical grades were not outstanding. But now I observe that even
many of the 4.0s have the opinion that a general business education
may be equally as important as technical acumen.
Consequently, I do find that many engineers have chosen to take any
number of business-focused classes—from economics to marketing,
entrepreneurship, and even "softer" classes like public
From a recruiting standpoint, it is not necessarily the knowledge
gained from the business-class textbooks that is important but the
skills that are developed from the structure of curriculum. While success
in the engineering curriculum depends on ability to complete problem
sets and exams, success in business classes depends on ability to analyze
case studies, succeed in group projects, develop and conduct effective
presentations. These are the skills that separate the good from the
outstanding engineers in the workplace. "I definitely hold in
high regard those students who have demonstrated success in this environment," says
AMS's Clark agrees: "Our engineers will be face to face
with clients and need to be able to represent the company in a positive
way," he says. Clark looks for students chomping at the bit to
explain problems they have had to solve outside of the engineering
In the end, as ABET determined years ago, it will be the ability
to move with dexterity as a team member and a leader that will make
the world of difference in the job market for a budding engineering
graduate. After all, it's about survival.
Kerry Hannon is a freelance writer based in Washington,
D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT EMPLOYERS WANT
Basically the corporations want the whole ball of wax—soft
skills, science skills, and diversity. Universities, often cramped
by budgetary concerns and elemental old-school thinking, are trying
to make the three jibe.
It hasn't been easy. However, both seem to understand
the need to mesh the three challenges together for an engineer's
success in the workplace. No one seems to be arguing with that notion.
But top-notch technical skills are still important.
Michael J. Demetsky, professor and chair of the University of Virginia's
department of civil engineering, is adamant about the role communication
and soft skills play in the success of a graduate student in the corporate
In general, here's what today's engineering
students should be able to parlay into an engineering career:
*An ability to apply their knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering
to design, conduct experiments, and analyze data.
*An ability to perform on multidisciplinary teams and communicate effectively.
*A broad education to help them understand the impact of engineering solutions
in a global and societal context. That means a smattering of everything from
history to sociology to psychology.
*A yen for lifelong learning.
*A bona fide knowledge of contemporary issues.
Most university graduate programs are still struggling
to evolve. In the case of UVA, Demetsky freely admits that the skill
set is becoming more basic than ever before. That is, given core curriculum
requirements, requirements in humanities and the social sciences, science
electives, and unrestricted electives, along with a reduction in credit
hours, design and practical applications are receiving less time in
the classroom. Good students ought to grab hold of them in their undergraduate
years, he contends.
Therein lies the conflict. According to Bob McKinley,
director of engineering for Fossil & Hydro Technical Services at
Dominion Energy, Inc., many university engineering graduate departments
do still weigh heavy on those technical skills. "Engineers that
can clearly communicate with the customer are more likely to develop
a cost-effective solution. They have the opportunity to advance quickly," he
So the debate continues, with corporations drumming
home the need for better communication skills versus engineering faculty
at universities who are pressured to do research and publish in order
to obtain tenure and promotion. "In the past 20 years, engineering
faculty has been pressured much more than their peers, who began academic
careers earlier and devoted much more of their time to engineering
practice than research," says Demetsky.
Another key to producing a winner of an engineering
graduate is on a different tangent altogether, but one that has been
in the forefront of discussion lately. There is a genuine need and
demand for diversity in candidates by corporations. Corporations want
to see some type of diversity commitment from the universities, says
patent attorney and electrical engineer Loria Yeadon. "They are
looking for a diverse pool, and they are waiting."
In her opinion, universities need to enroll more diverse
students and make a commitment to them. Corporate America will applaud
that, she says. These future engineers need a shot and haven't
been getting it. Other corporate recruiters say they are doing the
best at hiring candidates of race and color that they can. It is a
critical matter to them.
So there are soft skills, hard skills, and diversity
demands all roiling about in hopes of coming together to create a smooth
path for an aspiring engineer freshly degreed and a corporation—to
form a partnership that will blossom into productive careers and create
top-level engineering solutions.