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.

By Sandra Guy, SWE December 14, 2015

Amy 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.

Skill-building can empower both employer and employee

Yet the center’s work has shown that the 20- to 33-year-old millennials can learn the necessary skills to be successful, if their employer invests the time and effort needed to get them up to speed.

"Millennials want to make a difference from their very first day at work," Dorsey said. "They want to believe in what the employer is aiming to achieve."

For those with disposable income — and many of the millennials are single with no children — a multitude of online courses have sprung up to meet the demand for new skills. One immersive course advertised via email marketing offers 10 weeks of study for $10,500 that features instructors who work as software engineers for Microsoft and Google, for example.

But companies will find that it’s worth appealing to millennials in an engaging way, Dorsey said, especially as a Pew Research Center analysis published in May revealed that this year millennials surpassed Generation X to become the largest share of the American work force. Engineers are among the millennials with strongly held ideals of what they want in the work force. According to Dorsey, the following examples are some ways that companies can appeal to millennial engineers.

Be clear about what the company can do to fulfill a millennial’s career expectations. "Millennials who believe in the company’s mission and its leadership will choose that company over another one that pays more," Dorsey said. "Millennials also want hands-on experience, so at our company, we let millennial employees pick a volunteer project that all employees can do together."

Engineers in the millennial generation want to have "a good first 30 days" at their first jobs, according to the center’s latest research. "An employer should have a clear plan on how to make those first 30 days meaningful — little things such as having the new hire’s business card ready or someone prepared to give the new hire a tour make a big impact on millennials," Dorsey said.

Engineers want a "talent development pathway"— an intentional and progressive agenda that ensures they become more valuable employees, the research showed.

"It doesn’t have to be a promotion or a pay raise," Dorsey said. "It could be some type of training or experience, such as a certification or short-term project that allows [the millennial employee] to stretch his or her skills. That could be a presentation, a demonstration, or a report, anything that literally advances the employee’s skills."

Engineers want regular progress updates. "They want a quick conversation with a boss or an executive to talk through what they have learned on the job so far," Dorsey said. "That could be done every six months, and it could last just 10 minutes. It’s more of a check-in or an engagement meeting than a performance review."

In essence, millennials expect work to be a two-way street, and they thrive when the workplace comes through as a true opportunity. "We find that many millennials can be outstanding at leadership and project management," Dorsey said. "They bring an attitude of being willing to adapt and being open and excited about change.

"Many engineering audiences I speak with are millennials, and many are in their 30s and already in management and leadership roles," he said. These are the millennials who have found a company and a career path and worked hard to follow it, Dorsey said. Yet another segment of the generation needs more basic training, and is still finding its path.

"The mentality that it’s going to be easy or quick can hold back some millennials," Dorsey noted. He attributed the much-publicized sense of entitlement some millennials showcase to their having been raised by parents who wanted it easier for their children than it was for themselves. "Once millennials realize it’s on them to make (their careers thrive), they have the power and the ability to work hard and succeed," he said. "But it takes longer for them to get to that place."

Skills for a global world

Interpersonal skills have never been more critical to engineering careers, experts say, because technology puts resumes in the public spotlight and allows people to communicate globally at the touch of a button.

Engineering firm clients have become increasingly sophisticated about finding professionals’ credentials, in part as a result of the ease of access of websites such as LinkedIn. Clients are even cherry-picking their own project teams from different companies, says Scott D. Butcher, vice president of JDB Engineering Inc., a mechanical/electrical engineering firm based in York, Pennsylvania.

"In the past, when our firm would pursue work, we would offer 10 sample projects for potential clients to review," Butcher said. "Now, potential clients go to a website, review an organizational chart of the people on the project team, Google those people, see if they blog, look at their LinkedIn profiles and, in some cases, put together their ‘dream team’ of individuals." The result is a heightened focus on each team member, including the engineers, on creating an impressive personal "brand" so that he or she will be chosen to work on the client’s job, Butcher said.

By picking engineers from different companies, the clients insist on putting together what Butcher calls "forced marriages" of the perceived best professionals from competing companies. "Traditional competitors are joining forces, either as a joint venture or with one as a prime subcontractor, to win work," he said. "Sometimes you are sleeping with the enemy."

That’s the new norm, however. "Our research has uncovered that ‘teaming’ is a major trend," Butcher said. "In the past, that was the purview of a firm’s principals or the business development staff inside a single company. The future may even require engineers to take on a more entrepreneurial role, so that they choose or attract the most pertinent projects for their talents."

In fact, Butcher said, "The latest prediction is that this will become an industry of freelancers, with lots of pickup teams, so that a mechanical engineer might consult on three or four different projects. It portends badly for firms that win contracts but don’t have the necessary staff to deliver the product." The only upside, he continued, is that the United States has fewer engineers than companies need, so while engineers are still in high demand, there should be enough work to go around.

Adam Rogers, chief technology officer at Ultimate Software, a Weston, Florida-based software-as-a-solution designer, said his company purposefully treats its brightest professionals, including engineers, so well that they won’t want to freelance their talents. "Engineers want to know that the projects [on which] they are working are valuable; that their work is not an academic exercise," said Rogers, who earned his electrical engineering degree from the University of Florida.

"The more progressive and successful organizations run a more Agile-like process, in which small teams collaborate and self-organize to rapidly create software," Rogers noted. "Many times, the customer is in the room with the team." Indeed, Ultimate Software recently promoted one of its best engineers to run a research group that will work with partners and customers to come up with ease-of-use products, Rogers said. One example is building a solution for a home-loan company so it can pull a loan applicant’s latest two W-2 (wage and tax statements) with one mouse click, and making sure the process is secure, Rogers said. This promotion reflects the idea that, the more engineers understand how their products can create revenue, recruit talent, or increase productivity for clients, the better, he said.

Worldly wisdom matters

Teams of engineers and other professionals are increasingly based not only at different companies but also in other parts of the world, other experts say. Executives who serve as directors on the board of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Inc. (NACME), for example, are increasingly seeking undergraduate engineering students with international experience, said Irving Pressley McPhail, NACME president and CEO.

"We are encouraging our scholars [who win NACME scholarships and other forms of support for engineering studies] pursuing bachelor’s degrees to take advantage of study-abroad programs," McPhail said. "The ‘soft’ skill of engagement with diverse teams — particularly those that are diverse in terms of race, gender, and even political beliefs — has become something very important for students to master."

"The primary driving force is the flat world," he said. "Engineers are not simply communicating with a team member in the same room or even a colleague at a company across town. On a daily basis, they are communicating with others around the world, so knowledge of languages and the importance of critical-thinking skills are key." The result is a renewed interest in incorporating such liberal-arts studies as the humanities, philosophy, and history in engineering education, McPhail said. Even the basics count and shouldn’t be overlooked, others say. "With everyone playing on a more even playing field technologically, what is today’s differentiator? The personal skills," said Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicagobased staffing and recruiting services firm. The number one skill employers desire is an employee’s sense of urgency, followed by the ability to show initiative, and to communicate his or her experiences clearly, Gimbel said.

The next most important skill is flexibility — the ability to shift gears and take on more work than a job title may indicate, Gimbel said. There’s a flip side, however. Gimbel observed that workers willing to put in long hours and extend themselves also want to be acknowledged.

Workers also must be increasingly sophisticated about how, where, and when they communicate, whether in verbal, written, or unwritten communications, he said.

"How do you listen? How do you speak? Do you have perspective to not say too much?" Gimbel asked. "Does your picture — even the clothes you’re wearing — on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram instill confidence that someone might want to hire you and pay you thousands of dollars? What do your tweets and Facebook posts say to the world? Are you reinventing who you are to fit the times?"

-Sandra Guy, SWE contributor. This article originally appeared on SWE Magazine, SWE is a CFE Media content partner.