Soft skills Crucial in Global Engineering Services

by Sharathkumar Variyar    Jun 23, 2009

Introduction

In this article we will go deep into one specific industry - Global Engineering Services and use it as an example to conclude that there is no one size fits all solution for managing soft-skills. 

The universe of global engineering services is in a state of constant flux as technology and business keeps changing.  Adding to this is the demographic shift in engineers.  A significant proportion of existing aerospace/automotive and mechanical engineering are now retiring from developed nations such as US, UK, France, Germany and Japan.  However, their colleges & universities are turning out far lesser engineering and aeronautical graduates creating a big demand for such engineering graduates from other geographies.  In short, a vastly different demography is emerging today to discharge global engineering requirements. 

By the word Services in Global Engineering Services one can infer that they have customer compulsions similar to other service businesses and industries. Thus customer relationship management and communication are important. Similarly, value they offer is judged or perceived based on overall experience and ambience at all touch-points and not just on the service provided or product delivered.  This work demands high accountability and work-ethic, a sense of urgency, doing things right first time, on time delivery, minimizing defects, in short - deliver consistently a very high level of quality. 

Soft-skills Universal phenomena

An important stakeholder for a discussion on soft skills is the new-generation engineering force in whose hands we entrust our future. The dynamic young generation is a lot more confident, has excellent access to education and information, tends to be more self-sufficient and independent, much more tolerant to alien ideas, values and thought streams, a lot better in team building and bonding and last but not the least, highly informed, conscious and vocal about social, political and environmental issues.

However, it is widely documented and well-known that there is a real challenge on the demand side on sourcing people with relevant soft-skills.  It is increasingly becoming difficult to allocate trained resources on the job without supplemental soft-skills training.  Engineers, taken as a class, tend to be less endowed with soft-skills than some other professionals.  The highly advanced mathematical, analytical brain may not be much of a communicator.  Whether in the United States, Mexico, India, China, Poland, anywhere, this is a common issue.  During their high school education, many engineers would have neglected studying humanities, languages and arts as a result of peer pressure to master science and mathematics, subjects that help clearing competitive entrance exams.  In this process an all-rounded development of complementary human intelligences and faculties like creativity and inter-personal skills is stunted. 

A look at contemporary industry practices

Within the Indian industry, there is a definite move towards backward integrating academics with the soft-skill needs including English language, communication and team work.  Industries have started collaborating in a structured way with academia thereby resulting in a mutual win-win for both.  Through evaluation rigor prior to on-boarding, there is some control on the quality of the incumbents.  Some popular mantras include hire for attitude train for skills and hire for learning ability . 

There is at least a three month window before full productivity of fresh candidates resulting in a sail or sink situation for the freshers.  It is usually impossible to fit freshers into mission critical projects. 
The scope and impact of roles keep increasing as careers progress and therefore the specific interventions and methods to augment soft-skills need to be carefully planned.  A learning map published to employees helps to keep them conscious and aware of behavior expected at their level and at the next higher level.  A Harvard University study revealed that 85% of jobs & promotions happened because of the candidate s attitude and only 15% due to the store of information he or she possessed. 

Recent developments

A study across four engineering service industries in India revealed the top challenges as - Not asking enough questions , Assuming customer / authority figure is always right , Being afraid to ask questions and Assuming everything is understood based on whatever customer has told us .  

As a result of globalization along with technical excellence, newer skills like knowledge of interacting with trans-national cultural behavior, use of graphic communication including use of annotations with pictures, conducting walk-through using webinar sessions and so forth, creativity and innovation (why, what-if) are emerging in the space of engineering services. Traditional soft-skills continue to be relevant and these include adaptability, open-mindedness, problem solving, decision making, communication skills, self learning and knowledge discovery, empathy and team work, motivation and attitude encompassing initiative, perseverance in adversity and ability to motivate self and others. 

The changing business scenario today has resulted in specific soft-skills assuming importance as shown below

Services Skills Linkage

Project management:  Team work, assertiveness, execution excellence.

Knowledge management: Written English, writing skills

Integrated product teams (IPT), Concurrent engineering: Spoken English, verbal communication, use of graphical communication methods

Quality systems and processes: Mindset, attitude, attention to details, assertiveness- including ability to say no when appropriate, Integrity, Honesty, Forthrightness in admitting mistakes

Global project teams: Business etiquettes, cultural sensitivity, Willingness to seek help

Rapid changes in business and technology: Stress (self ) management, flexibility, adaptability, change management

Innovation / Productivity improvement: Open, inquisitive mind, creativity


Conclusion

In these changing times, there is no one method to fit all the situations.  The process of effectively imparting soft-skills or any other skill is best done combining communication skills , with appreciation of learner psychology and of course subject matter knowledge. For example, convincing the young generation on the need for a green lifestyle, has to draw on excellent communication skills , include the compulsions of decisions (or indecision) that they can relate with; and also be technically convincing - supported with meaningful everyday examples and data.  For global engineering services industry, this appreciation can help bring change of the scale that is required today. 

The author is Competency Development Head, Quest Global