Workplace trends demand greater depth and breadth of skills

Success in today’s workplace calls for expanded capabilities, from demonstrating technical expertise to meeting with clients, or working with teams across disciplines, companies, and countries. The implications are vast, particularly for millennials.


Success in today’s workplace calls for expanded capabilities, from demonstrating technical expertise to meeting with clients, or working with teams across disciplines, companies, and countries. The implications are vast, particularly for millennials. CourAmy Li, a 26-year-old employee at a data-science company, lauds the firm's founder for giving her time to learn from more senior colleagues when she started the job a year ago.

Li said she appreciated that company founder and chief scientist Alok Choudhary invited her to sit in on engineering department meetings, ask questions, figure out the lingo, and get to know her colleagues — an example of a liberal-arts major receiving on-the-job training in engineering.

"I was willing to learn," said Li, a native of Taiwan who works with engineers at Chicago-based 4C Insights to examine uses of its proprietary technology to analyze social-media data, in order to help clients plan, communicate, and advertise messages targeted to specific audiences.

At the same time that Li learns on the job, she intends to subscribe to online coursework on her own time to gain an edge in her work. "I want to understand even more and be able to come up with questions about new projects we can do with the software engineers," said Li, who earned her undergraduate degree in English language and literature from Soochow University and her master's in integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. "I want to do more to help our clients."

Li's experience is becoming the norm for employees in highly competitive industries being asked to take on expanded roles, including public speaking and corporate reputation building. Li's goal — to pursue her passion for social-data collection and make it work for good — also represents the millennial generation's challenge of showing initiative and learning on the job, even if it requires doing so on one's own time and on one's own dime, experts say.

Millennials aren't the only ones finding their job descriptions expanding, but they are among the most impacted because so many are just starting their careers.

Just as other economic downturns showed corporations that they could rely on new technology and fewer workers to profit, so too did the Great Recession for companies that employ engineers.

"When the economy turned, construction and design industry companies started cutting jobs, and some of the first positions to go were marketing and business development," said Barbara D. Shuck, firmwide marketing and communications manager for Wilson & Company, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based engineering and architectural firm.

Now, engineers are being asked to take on those roles, identifying business opportunities, setting up client relationships, and bird-dogging the details of getting projects finished, said Shuck, who is president of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS), a professional society that represents, connects, educates, and advocates for 6,500 member engineers, architects, and general construction professionals.

The expanded job duties are incorporated into what's known as the "seller-doer" model. It often requires engineers who are in closest contact with a project to participate in sales pitches and team interaction with clients. Shuck said engineers do not learn these skills in school, and though they may be excellent designers, they may lack a salesperson's persuasiveness and the temperament or personality required to schmooze.

The SMPS Foundation is researching engineers' evolving roles and preparing to offer programs, resources, and instructors to ensure that they gain the latest skill sets "to speak any language of business," Shuck said.

Of course, there are exceptions to the assumption that many technical people dread or fear learning so-called "soft" skills. Scott G. Miller, P.E., senior principal and office manager of Terracon Consultants Inc.'s Omaha office, said he has always loved to talk to people and understand what makes them tick, so he took naturally to participating in client relations and client development from the start of his career in 1996.

"I developed a lot of relationships with people right out of the gate," said Miller, who received his bachelor's degree in civil engineering and his master's degree in geotechnical engineering, both from Iowa State University. "I found it to be extremely valuable.

"I've seen engineers who adapt to the 'seller-doer' model accelerate (in their careers) much faster than those who do not," Miller said.

Indeed, research led by the Center for Generational Kinetics, an Austin, Texas-based research and consulting company focused on generational issues, showed that the millennial generation is entering the work force later than earlier generations, and many are doing so without the so-called soft skills that may have been taken for granted by earlier generations. These include such previously common experiences as looking at other people, building relationships by talking on the telephone, making public presentations that require speaking before large groups, and using natural eye contact during interviews and workplace meetings.

That's because millennials frequently grew up staring at a computer screen, raised by baby boomer parents focused on ensuring that their children were well-rounded rather than expecting that they work part-time summer or afterschool jobs, said Jason Dorsey, chief strategy officer and an expert researcher on millennials at the center.

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