Orange County Branch Newsletter

May 2014

President's Message

President's Message - Don’t Get Left Behind - Work on Your Soft Skills

By Penny Lew, P.E.



When many of us began our civil engineering careers, the emphasis was to develop and hone our technical skills-to learn as much as possible about analyses or design as related our assignments and projects. We were advised to work on “hard skills” otherwise known as occupational requirements of our profession. Early in my career, no one really talked about the importance of non-technical skills or essential skills such as effective verbal communication and strategic thinking. So any emphasis on developing interpersonal skills or “soft skills” such as time management, ethics, conflict resolution, and team building was pretty much non-existent.  

“Soft skills” is a term that’s associated with the group of connected personality traits, communication, personal habits, sociability, etiquette, and optimism that characterize relationships with other people. They can be further defined as personal attributes that enhance an individual's interactions, job performance and career prospects and relate to a person's ability to interact effectively with coworkers and customers.  Soft skills complement “hard skills” (intelligence and knowledge associated with IQ) and are related to feelings, emotions, insights and perhaps, an “inner knowing” (intuition) as they provide an important complement to hard skills with a person's "EQ" (Emotional Intelligence Quotient).  EQ can be defined as the ability to monitor one's own and other people's emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and identify them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior

It seems that soft skills and EQ has become more important to organizations when bringing in new hires.   We are finding that having these skills is playing a large part of an individual’s contribution to the success of an organization. Organizations dealing with customers face-to-face are generally more successful if they train their staff to use their soft skills. Recruiting, screening or training for personal habits or traits such as dependability and conscientiousness can yield significant return on investment for an organization.  For this reason, soft skills are increasingly sought out by employers in addition to standard qualifications.

In some professions, the ability to deal with people effectively could be more important than just having the needed occupational skills. But in civil engineering, honing of solid technical skills early on is usually recommended or encouraged, at least during the first few years of one’s career, so that the engineer develops builds a good foundation of technical knowledge and confidence to enable one to take on management positions.  Think about some of the traits you have found in some of the exceptional managers you’ve worked with and what makes them successful. Talk to them about how they have successfully used their soft skills and whether it comes fairly easily for them, or if they had to train or really work to improve in this area.  

Most companies and organizations now look for a different mix of skills and experience depending on its core business and the position they seek to fill.  It's no longer enough to be a functional expert-the one who holds a body of specialist knowledge. To complement these unique core competencies, there are certain behavioral competencies companies and organizations look for in a potential hire.

Business these days is being done at an increasingly fast pace so employers want people who are agile, adaptable and creative at solving problems. In today's service economy and with the predominance of the work team in large organizations, many consider the value of people skills and relationship-building. Often, job candidates are advised to get in touch with their soft sides- especially those who aspire to managerial positions. Some of the most common soft skills employers are looking for and could be assessing you on include:

1. Positive Attitude - Are you optimistic and upbeat?  Are you able to generate good energy-even during the most difficult times?

2. Strong Work Ethic - Are you motivated and dedicated to getting the job done, no matter what? Will you be conscientious in working with others and do your best work?

3. Good Communication Skills - Are you both verbally articulate and a good listener? Can you make your case and express your needs in a way that builds bridges with colleagues, customers and others?

4. Problem-Solving Skills - Are you resourceful and able to creatively solve problems that will inevitably arise? Will you take ownership of problems or leave them for others?

5. Time Management Abilities - Do you know how to prioritize tasks and work on many different projects at once? Will you use your time on the job effectively?

6. Being a Team Player - Do you work well in groups and teams? Will you be cooperative and take a leadership role when appropriate?

7. Flexibility/Adaptability - Are you able to adapt to new situations and challenges? Will you accept and support change and be open to new ideas?

8. Self-Confidence -  Do you truly believe you can do the job? Do you project a sense of calm and inspire confidence in others? Do you have the courage to ask questions that need to be asked and to contribute your ideas freely?

9. Ability to Accept and Learn From Criticism - Are you coachable and open to learning and growing as a person and as a professional?  Are you able to handle criticism well?

10. Working Well Under Pressure - Can you handle the stress that accompanies deadlines and crises? Will you be able to do your best work and come through during tough times?

These interpersonal skills are based on performance, productivity, and just how effective you are.    They can be acquired through many ways, mainly with improving communication and developing leadership qualities. Working on body language, eye contact, and being at ease in relationships, of any kind, will improve the soft skills.

You will probably learn that these skills and methods need to be practiced in order to really make them a habit and mastered skills.  Many times a situation, staff member, colleague, client or other will really put your skills to the test. If you are finding it challenging to get over some your inner obstacles and need extra tools, consider taking some classes to help you look inward.  You can also have an assessment done to determine your aptitudes, talents, strengths, weaknesses and to identify the gaps. Perhaps at some point, you will take advantage of the opportunities to really improve your soft skills and abilities so that you don’t get left behind. 

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