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					Communication Skills Become an Ace in the Hole
By Molly Galvin, Associate Editor
Engineering Times, February 1996

        This is the second in a new monthly series of articles, “On the Way Up,” that
highlights career development issues relevant to younger engineers. (We hope engineers
at all career levels will find the stories useful, as well.) Future stories will cover such topics
as networking, continuing education, licensure, juggling professional development with
work and family, advice from seasoned engineers, choosing between big and small firms,
and job search resources. Keep an eye out for the “On the Way Up” icon.

        Most engineers enter the profession because they are interested in engineering—
not writing or giving presentations. But educators and other groups are placing greater
emphasis on improving their graduates’ communication skills.
        Some engineering programs have even revamped their curricula to improve
communication skills among graduates. But is that really what engineers need to make it
in the real world?
        The answer is yes, according to many employers. Well-developed oral and written
communication skills are becoming almost as critical as strong technical abilities for
engineers, they say. Even junior-level engineers must be able to communicate with
supervisors and coworkers in order to succeed.
        The farther up an engineer wants to climb on the career ladder, the better his or her
communication skills must be, says Gary Bates, professional engineer and partner in the
Cincinnati-based Roenker Bates Group, a management consultant firm.
        “I think [communication skills] are essential, perhaps even more important than
technical skills,” says Bates. “Most of us in the workplace have to tell people what we’re
accomplishing, what our goals and schedules are... If we can’t do that, then we’re pretty
ineffective,” he says.
        Many human resources administrators agree. “When [engineers] first come in here
out of school they’ve got to be able to communicate with supervisors and with coworkers
because it’s a team effort,” says Deborah Hoskinson, manager of human resources for
Greiner Inc., a civil engineering consulting firm outside of Baltimore. “They’re not just
isolated in a cubicle drawing a set of plans,” she says.
        And once engineers begin working with firm’s clients, communication skills become
even more important, she says. “They’ve got to have the communication skills to be able
to figure out what it is the client wants and make sure that they...can share that back in the
office so that the work gets done on time and within budget... If we can’t do that, we’re out
of business,” she notes. Greiner actively seeks out those graduates and young engineers
who have proven communication skills on their resumes.
        Young graduates are making more of an effort to improve communication skills as
they study, Hoskinson says. “In general, I’m seeking much better communication skills in
recent graduates—both verbal and writing skill,” she notes. “I’m seeking more people
coming out of school with technical writing or business writing in their transcripts, and
some of them are actually taking a public speaking course because they realize that it’s
necessary, she says. “Somebody’s giving these kids some idea of what they’re going to
need to survive in the working world,” she adds.
         But there are also many engineers who avoid communications opportunities
throughout their careers. That may be because communication skills don’t come naturally
to many of them, says Bates. “I think that the same kind of mental processes that would
lead one to engineering—strong in math, sciences, etc.—most of the time don’t relate well
with having strong communication skills, he says. Engineers tend to be “left-brain,” or
logical, analytical, and rational, while strong communicators are “right-brain,” or creative
and intuitive, he notes.
         That doesn’t mean that engineers can’t develop their communication techniques,
Bates stresses. “The part that usually gets the most emphasis is verbal, interpersonal
communication skills. But I’m also a believer in effective writing skills,” he notes. Even
nonverbal communication such as reading body language shouldn’t be overlooked. “The
gestures that we make, facial expressions, what we do with our hands... Learning to
understand body language is kind of the graduate school of effective communication,” he
says.
         But perhaps the most important communication skill a young engineer can develop
is listening. In fact, really listening to clients and being able to interpret their needs and
goals is absolutely essential, says Peter Koval, a professional engineer and vice president
of O’Brien & Gere Engineers Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Syracuse, New York.
“I’m sure any consulting firm in the country can tell you about the lessons learned if they
didn’t listen effectively to their clients,” he says. Engineers across all disciplines need
effective listening skills to really succeed at communication, Bates adds. “When I’m
talking, I’m only repeating what I know,” he says. “But the only way I’m going to get any
smarter is to listen.”
         Engineers who want to improve any of these need to practice them, says Bates.
Sometimes firms will help their engineering staff by providing funding for speech or writing
classes, videos, or other materials toward that end. For example, O’Brien & Gere regularly
sends engineers to speech and writing courses and also professional society meetings.
The firm also brings in outside consultants occasionally for on-site instruction, as does
Greiner.
         Even if an engineer’s firm doesn’t offer these kinds of opportunities, engineers can
and should seek them out on their own. “They can get involved in marketing efforts by
helping to write a proposal or make a presentation to a client,” suggests Hoskinson. A
group of employees could meet periodically on their lunch hour or after work to practice
presentation and speaking skills, Bates says.
         There are also several relatively low-cost groups, such as Toastmasters, that
engineers can join to improve speaking skills, Bates adds. Professional societies offer
excellent curricular speaking and writing opportunities. Even volunteering for community
service gives engineers an opportunity to interact with others and improve communication
skills, he says. Numerous books, manuals, and videos also offer guidance in all areas of
communication.
         But just reading a book or attending a class isn’t enough to really improve
communication skills. Engineers will have to make a commitment to practice their skills as
part of an ongoing improvement process, says Bates. That commitment usually results
from the realization that career opportunities will be severely limited without good
communication skills.
         “Each firm may have only a limited number of opportunities for people where
communications and writing skills are not needed as much,” Koval points out. “I think in a
lot of organizations, it just becomes very, very limiting.”

				
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