Social skills rival education, experience

One of the final requirements before landing a coveted engineering internship this summer was a presentation to corporate recruiters.

And Vita Como, senior director of professional development at the University of Houston, told the three students who work for her at the Cullen College of Engineering Career Center to practice theirs 10 times before taking the stage.

There was grumbling, recalled Como, who coached her student workers to elaborate and not just read the slides in their presentations. But the practice paid off when all three got paid internships — a point not lost on other applicants in the room who bumbled and fumbled their way through their presentations.

Word spread quickly among the engineering students about how coaching and practice can turn a dull recitation into a polished presentation — and maybe land them a job. "I had a line out my office," Como said.

Universities across the country are giving their engineering and science students extra help navigating the "soft skills" that may come more naturally to liberal arts students. In some schools, the communication and leadership training is woven into the traditional curriculum; in others, faculty and staff reinforce the skills informally through career seminars.

Engineers don't just deal with machines and models, said Samuel Frimpong, who chairs the mining department at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. They need to interact with their co-workers and subordinates and managers as well as industry groups and regulatory agencies. They need to know how to lead, communicate and work with others.

Too shy?

But many incoming engineering students are "big time" deficient in those social skills, said Frimpong, whom my husband and I met earlier this summer on a college tour with our teenage son, Benjamin. Many are shy and unable to make an effective presentation standing in front of peers.

"And they have all those tubes in their ears," he said, referring to the earbuds that seem to be surgically attached and connect adolescents with their smart phones and music players.

But Frimpong knows the importance of soft skills and launched a yearlong seminar for undergraduates that requires them to make weekly presentations. That class began after a survey of industry leaders and alumni suggested the school should boost students' skills in written and oral communications.

One mining executive who recruits told Frimpong that he assumes all the graduates are technically qualified, and that it's communication, presentation and other soft skills that make some students stand out.

Shaking hands

At the University of Houston, engineering students can attend seminars on how to shake hands and introduce themselves, create a good first impression and navigate a business lunch. They don't always absorb this information easily.

Students assume a business meal is about eating, said Como, whose instruction includes the basics — be gracious to the waiter when ordering — and details about which napkin and water glass to use.

In earlier times, engineering recruits were supervised by other engineers and didn't meet customers for years, Como said. New engineers now are expected to come on board with the social skills needed to meet and greet clients.

But it's not always easy to teach the rules of napkin use, bread buttering and fork selection to students inclined more to efficiency and rationality rather than toward esoteric dining customs.

'They argue with me'

"They argue with me," she said. They also argue that their grade-point average should be the only factor that counts in whether they get a job, said Como, who said she finds herself explaining that is not how the corporate world works.

Michael Wong, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice University, looks for opportunities to point out errors and then quietly — and gently — explains how to do better.

He often gets that opportunity when he brings in visitors to his lab and introduces them to the students working there. Some know to stop what they're doing, introduce themselves and explain their work. For others, it's not so easy.

Wong said he goes back after visitors leave and explains, for example, the importance of maintaining eye contact. He explains that someone looking at his shoes or around the room sends the message he's not interested in the conversation or that a visitor is imposing on his time.

Other times he corrects students on their handshaking skills. A limp handshake is a sign of timidity, he explains, then has students practice until they get it right.

Everyday stuff

One of his colleagues teaches a class that focuses on teamwork, report-writing and presentation skills.

As students, the future engineers don't much like the non-technical training.

But in surveys two and five years after graduation, students report that the soft skills were among the most valuable in their entire education, Wong said, because it's the stuff they have to use every day.

Social skills rival education, experience 08/27/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 27, 2011 5:31am]

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