Career Advice

5 Skills Hiring Managers Look for in Engineering Grads
Meghan Brown posted on February 09, 2016 |
So what skills are recruiters and hiring managers looking for?


You are now an engineer on the job hunt.

You know that you’re a highly skilled engineering graduate, but the job hunt can feel like a particularly arduous task.

Maybe you have a couple strong internships or some engineering competition wins under your belt.  Maybe you were a project team leader or a volunteer with a STEM outreach program.

But even with all your qualifications, it’s difficult to know out what will catch a recruiter’s eye.

So what skills are recruiters and hiring managers looking for?

We spoke with experts on engineering recruitment to find out what skills are most in demand.  These five skillsets topped the list:

  1. Technical Skills
  2. Communication Skills
  3. Interpersonal Skills
  4. Problem Solving and Critical Thinking
  5. Enthusiasm, Commitment and Motivation

Technical skills take first rank, as expected for jobs in the engineering field. The others, however, fall into the category of “soft skills.”

Before we examine these top five skills, let’s consider how the need for soft skills has evolved in the engineering workplace.


Soft Skills in the Modern Engineering Workplace

The modern engineering workplace requires more than strictly technical skills.  Recruiters are often looking for a combination of technical ability and transferable or soft skills.

“Technical skills alone are not enough to ensure a successful engineering career, as engineers need to able to function as a member of a team, think critically, and have a strong work ethic,” said Angela Froistad, assistant director of the College of Science and Engineering Career Center at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In the eyes of recruiters, “It’s these soft skills that will differentiate candidates from one another.”


Shifting Focus

This shift in the desired skillset for engineering employees isn’t the only change in the workplace.  Jobs where employees are expected to conform themselves to fit the company culture are fading. It is becoming more common for employees to seek out careers that offer a balance between work life and personal lifestyle, and companies are changing to meet that demand.

“Today’s brightest and best are much more focused on their work/life balance and workplace wellness. In response, recruiters invest more in determining an applicant’s soft skills to assure that they will fit well with their corporate culture.”

According to David Durham of the West Virginia University Career Services Center, “Today’s brightest and best are much more focused on their work/life balance and workplace wellness. In response, recruiters invest more in determining an applicant’s soft skills to assure that they will fit well with their corporate culture.”

What this means is that your chances of being hired could diminish drastically if you don’t have the soft skills that match the company culture of your prospective employer. Even if you do have the right skills, the outcome could be the same if you don’t showcase those skills properly.


What Makes Soft Skills Vital to the Workplace?

“Soft skills are highly important because we all have to communicate within our organization,” stated Edna Grover-Bisker, of the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

“Technical skills are highly valued, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the soft skills that will help you stand out from the crowd. If you can’t accurately convey those technical skills or thoughts, how can you be a valued employee?” she added.

The specific requirements for both hard and soft skills will vary depending on the job, the company or the industry you work in, as well as how you plan to advance your career. But attaining these soft skills can be more difficult than building up technical skillsets.

“An employer can often train an intern or employee in areas where certain technical skills are lacking, but it can be much harder to teach soft skills,” said Froistad. “Many employers can train an employee on a computer program or laboratory skill in a relatively short amount of time, but they would likely find it more difficult to train an employee on how to resolve conflicts or be an effective member of a team. Soft skills are not developed overnight.”

In order to make yourself a more attractive hire, you first need to identify where you fall short in your soft skills, and how much you want to improve.  This will give you a goal to work toward, and help you decide what activities to pursue to reach that goal.

Cheryl Monachino of Binghamton University’s Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science suggests performing a self-assessment, to identify the gaps in your professional skills and then seeking out opportunities to develop and practice the needed skill.


Top Five In-Demand Skills for Engineers

Here are the top five most in-demand skills for engineers on the job hunt, along with some advice on what you can do to show off and sharpen these skills.


1. Technical Skills

Technical skills will still be the main skillset recruiters look at when assessing candidates. They want to know that you have the education, credentials and experience that the job requires.

According to Froistad, technical skills are critical to success in a technical role.  A company hiring software engineers, for instance, will likely require that applicants possess strong technical ability in computer programming languages such as Java and C++.

Durham agrees, offering the example of a chemical engineering graduate student being much less likely to appear as a strong candidate if they do not have at least one formal internship position on their resume.

“Highly technical positions will have stronger emphasis on keeping current with technology, [even though] engineering employers are looking for engineers to be well-rounded,” states Monachino.  Recruiters will be looking for technical expertise that is specific to the job for which they’re recruiting, which is where your past work experience and technical training come to the forefront.  This is why even with value being increasingly ascribed to soft skill sets, for engineers, the technical skills will always be number one.

“Technical skills are important to show that you can learn. The fact is, not every company uses the exact same text book software or processes. They have their own proprietary way of doing things, and will train you accordingly, but they want to know that you have aptitude.”

Recruiters and hiring managers also want to see that you are willing and able to pursue additional training, and up-to-date knowledge about current trends, to enhance the technical skills you already possess.

Grover-Bisker emphasized that “the technical skills are important to show that you can learn. The fact is, not every company uses the exact same textbook, software or processes. They have their own proprietary way of doing things, and will train you accordingly, but they want to know that you have aptitude.”

Having strong technical skills demonstrates that you have the ability to identify and solve technical problems.

Sharpen Your Skills

“In addition to the technical skills that are relevant to the position, employers routinely look for applicants that have relevant internship experience, strong performance in courses related to the position, and engagement in activities outside of the classroom,” said Froistad.

For students still enrolled in their studies, pursuing courses directly related to the job they want is the best way to gain relevant skills.  But for recent graduates, there are post-graduate-level online courses and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for technical training and engineering skills, with more courses being developed all the time.  Training workshops offered by a company, a local college, or an industry partner, along with industry conferences or tradeshows are also excellent avenues for gaining additional technical training.


Show Off Your Skills

“The employers that recruit within colleges of engineering can be assured that their applicants will possess a wide variety of technical skills, many of which are gained through a rigorous curriculum,” stated Froistad. However, applicants still need to make sure that they highlight the skills they have that are most relevant for the job.

Be sure to list all your technical skills, degrees, certifications and other training on your resume.

Be specific.

Prioritize the most relevant skills at the top, but always include less relevant skills as well, since this will serve to show your technical background is well-rounded with a wide variety of experience. You should also include detailed descriptions of how you have used your technical skills in internships or previous jobs to show that you know how to apply what you’ve learned.


2. Communication Skills

In both personal life and work life, communication is key.  Many engineering jobs are exceptionally information-heavy. This means engineers must be able to handle multiple modes of communication: technical and non-technical, written and verbal, online and in person.

“Gone are the days of sitting at a cubicle, and minding your own business. This is the digital age, and communication skills reign supreme,” said Grover-Bisker.  “You’ll need to be able to clearly communicate thoughts or issues with management, give presentations to customers, and keep in touch with lots of people via phone, e-mail and/or online meetings.”

Good communication skills are essential for team activities such as brainstorming, project meetings, product design and problem solving.  Across all of these tasks you are likely to interact with clients and colleagues at all levels of the organization. This means, being able to communicate your ideas clearly is an essential skill.

As many engineering jobs are heavily project-based, being able to keep track of yourself, your team and your project as a whole is also critical. You must be able to coordinate, prioritize and schedule multiple people, tasks, resources and projects in order to meet your deadlines and achieve your goals. This all rests on a foundation of reliable and efficient communication.

Froistad emphasized the essential nature of soft communication skills to the engineering job seeker, sharing that “we survey recruiters and hiring managers twice a year and ask them to tell us about the most important skills a job or internship applicant should possess. Year after year, communication skills are consistently reported as the number one skill employers are looking for.”

“Gone are the days of sitting at a cubicle, and minding your own business. This is the digital age, and communication skills reign supreme.”

It is also important to note that having good communication skills isn’t only useful when communicating directly with another person. Highly valued communication skills also encompass the ability to create technical documents, instructions and manuals that are clear, detailed and accurate.   Your team and the project as a whole rely on resources and documentation, so the ability to manage, update and disseminate the many documents, manuals and specifications required for a project is essential.

Moreover, if you plan to pursue significant advancement in your company and career, you will most likely be required to educate or train other employees or manage personnel.  Excellent communication skills are a must for these tasks.

Sharpen Your Skills

Since communication is such a large part of daily life, there are many opportunities to broaden and refine these skills.  Monachino pointed out that there are many on-campus opportunities that will help students develop these skills, including joining a student organization, leading social or classroom activities and volunteering to lead team projects.  Pursuing professional internships is also an effective way to enhance soft skills.  Once you have graduated, attending industry networking events and job fairs are a great way to practice your communication skills, as well as make connections that could help you land a job.


Show Off Your Skills

Your resume and cover letter combination should not just list the skills you have; that tells recruiters relatively little.  What they want to see is how you have applied these skills.

“The best way to sell your soft skills on your resume is to include detailed descriptions of past experience that highlights a particular soft skill,” advises Grover-Bisker. For example, “if you worked as an engineering intern, you most likely had to present and defend your findings to a manager or a group.”  Describing experiences like these can illustrate how you used your communication skills successfully.

It is also vital to have a well written, grammatically correct and properly formatted resume and cover letter.  In many cases, the resume you submit with an application will be your first introduction to a prospective employer.  Other times, sending in your resume may be a follow-up to a networking connection or in-person contact.  Either way, chances are this is the first opportunity for your prospective employer to learn the finer details about you and your skills. When you are trying to sell your communication skills, making sure that your resume showcases those skills is an obvious place to start.


3. Interpersonal Skills

Closely related to communication skills, interpersonal skills are an important component of success in the workplace.

These days, it’s a rare job that requires no cooperative work with other people.

“Engineering professionals are almost always part of a multi-discipline team and they need to exhibit a positive attitude, cooperate in the workplace, interact with people in a friendly manner and be accountable for their assignments. There is more to being a professional than simply technical prowess,” states Monachino.

Cultivating your interpersonal skills will make you an effective team or group leader, enable you to build and maintain strong relationships with both coworkers and clients and help you manage staff efficiently and effectively. Conflict resolution is an essential part of this, as problems both in and out of your control will happen, and not everyone will be happy all the time.  These types of leadership skills are essential as you advance in your career.

Sharpen Your Skills

According to Grover-Bisker, “Experience is hands down the best way to build or enhance soft skills,” and that doesn’t just mean work experience.

She advises job-seekers to, “Get involved, whether it’s an internship or co-op, volunteer job, large project on campus or a group. Interacting with actual people will always be the best way to build soft skills. After all, that’s what soft skills are: personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.”


Show Off Your Skills

A resume full of experience and “outstanding technical skills does not guarantee that an applicant can work well with others or will be conscientious,” said Durham. “The demonstration of soft skills gives the recruiter much better insight into the complete employee.”

This once more comes down to presenting your skills during the interview.  You’re trying to demonstrate that you work well with other people and will make a good co-worker, after all.  Be polite and friendly, speak honestly and respectfully about your education experience, your previous co-workers and workplaces.  The best way to show off your skills is to provide examples of how you applied them.  Have you acted as mediator during a conflict or crisis?  Were you responsible for training other people, teammates or coworkers?  Make sure you describe these situations and how you handled them.


4. Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

If you believe in Murphy’s Law, you know that technical problems, miscommunications and misunderstandings will happen, bringing with them the risks of stalling or derailing a project or causing tension between team members. This makes problem solving and critical thinking essential soft skills for any engineer.

When these issues inevitably crop up, you need to be able to identify, assess and analyze complex problems, quickly make decisions about how to handle the situation and then offer and implement solutions.

This isn’t just so-called “out of the box” thinking.  A large part of this skillset is simply the ability to organize your thoughts and present a well-reasoned argument to coworkers, managers and clients.

“Engineers have to be able to plan and schedule work while also having the skills to communicate solutions and issues to non-technical customers or colleagues. “Soft” skills enable engineers to not just be employees, but to be valued contributors,” said Monachino.

Sharpen Your Skills

“Experiential learning is critical: job shadowing, internships and career-related part-time jobs are expected for many industries,” stated Durham.  Taking on leadership roles for groups or projects during school and internships will help you learn to handle problems and mediate disputes when they come up between team members.  There are also a wide variety of professional development workshops and programs that offer training in conflict resolution, mediation and problem solving.


Show Off Your Skills

It is far more effective – and informative – to describe how you successfully applied your skills to a particular task or problem, rather than simply listing keywords and phrases.

“Applicants should avoid creating a laundry list of soft skills, such as ‘I am an effective communicator and problem-solver’,” states Froistad. “Instead, soft skills should be woven in with key accomplishments and listed in the experience and activities sections of the resume.”

Froistad offered the following example: “A descriptive statement such as ‘Led cross-functional team in implementing a new quality control procedure in order to minimize operating costs’ tells the recruiter that the applicant not only has applicable technical skills, but that he or she has been a leader of a team and can collaborate across divisions.”


5. Enthusiasm, Motivation and Commitment

You want that new job– make sure you show it!

Employers and recruiters want to see that you are sincerely interested in the topics you studied for your degree, as well as the new job you are applying for.  Demonstrating the enthusiasm to advance in your career by being open and expressing the desire to learn new skills can go a long way toward getting hired.

According to Monachino, a learning orientation, the desire to grow and develop your skills and experience and the ability to lead and take initiative for yourself and your projects are some of the top attributes that recruiters will look for.

You can also demonstrate interest by pursuing additional training both internally at your company, and externally through a school or professional association such as IMechE or ASME.

Durham also offers this reminder: “Personal traits like honesty, integrity, and a strong work ethic will never go out of style. Every employer wants to hire a leader with these characteristics.”

Sharpen Your Skills

“Many employers now offer short training programs or workshops on such topics as leadership development and public speaking,” said Froistad.  In addition, “newer employees may be able to take advantage of company mentorship programs.”

Similar programs are also commonly available to students through their institution’s career services department. Actively pursuing this type of personal improvement emphasizes that you are an enthusiastic and motivated potential employee.


Show Off Your Skills

Your attitude toward a current or prospective job matters, and how you feel about the job will come across in your resume, applications and interviews.  Be sure you express your genuine interest in the job not just during the application process, but in every interaction you have with a potential employer.

Many job boards allow you to apply for a job by simply clicking a button.  That won’t get you noticed.  Go the extra mile and customize your cover letter for each application, one that references the specific skills that the job demands.  This demonstration of interest is hard for recruiters to ignore.

Your attitude, coupled with your experience, will resonate with your level of commitment and skill, said Grover-Bisker.

Recruiters also want to see commitment to the job.  Be sure to ask questions during your interview – about job tasks, about the possibility for promotion, about that sort of future career path the company can offer. Show that you’re not just in it for today, but that you’re looking for a long-term career with the company.

Froistad agrees, stating that the interview “is where applicants have the greatest opportunity to showcase their soft skills. Many of these skills such as oral communication, interpersonal skills and enthusiasm may be immediately evident to the interviewer.”


On to the Job Hunt

Knowing what skills are most in demand is the first step toward making yourself an attractive job candidate. With this list as a guide, you will be able to build your skills to successfully get interviews and pursue your dream engineering job.

Seek out additional technical training. Practice your communication skills.  Get involved with groups and events to learn how to work with others. Think about problems and offer solutions. Sell yourself and your skills with enthusiasm and honesty.

A great career is waiting for you.  Happy job hunting!


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