Interpersonal skills in engineering education
conference contributionposted on 21.12.2016 by Peter Willmot, Benjamin Colman
Any type of content contributed to an academic conference, such as papers, presentations, lectures or proceedings.
CONTEXT Engineering education communities have long recognised that graduates not only need to possess technical knowledge in their chosen disciplines, but also need to be better educated in communication skills, teamwork, leadership, creativity, problem solving and a host of other human factors. Several studies mention these so-called “soft skills” as increasingly important to future engineers. This popular but unfortunate colloquial term is often used to describe the development of a person’s professional relationships with other people and the building of their emotional intelligence. On the other hand, it can suggest that these skills are low grade. Graduates with enhanced "soft skills" are certainly at an advantage in the job market. PURPOSE To investigate the following research questions: How important are soft skills? Are they perceived as low grade? What are the most appropriate methods for skills development and where does the responsibility for this lie? And ultimately, how effectively is the current education system preparing students for employment? APPROACH This paper reviews the current literature and compares this with the findings of a significant new investigation involving students, lecturers, careers personnel and employers. The primary research correlates quantitative and qualitative research methodologies using an online student survey; plus structured interviews with academics, careers advisors and industrial employers. RESULTS ‘Soft’ skills are difficult to quantify compared with hard (technical) skills. Conversely, less merit is often attached to soft skill competence in academia and hence they may be perceived as easier. Never-theless, they are externally perceived as extremely valuable. Most highly specialised academics, however, are typically not sufficiently well trained in the most appropriate teaching methods and believe (or hope) that the skills are simply acquired through experience. Participants overwhelmingly agreed that the development of ‘soft’ employability skills is important in higher education but few thought the responsibility for their development was the sole responsibility of HE institutions. All the interview participants believed that soft skills are insufficiently emphasised in the University curricula at present. Students believe that the best way to introduce more soft skill development is to change the method of learning in the technical subjects, rather than to directly teach soft skills. CONCLUSIONS The common term ‘soft’ skills is ambiguous and unhelpful. Transferable, interpersonal and people skills were preferred descriptors: the research found them difficult to bound, quantify, and teach. They tend to be subjective and were perceived, by some as low value. Nevertheless, the research suggests they are of equal or more importance than technical skills in respect of employability. The literature identified a graduate soft skills gap but on balance the research findings did not support this proposal. The new research data highlighted that work experience; mentoring and industrial placements are the most appropriate educational methods and that soft skills development should be a shared responsibility; lower and higher education institutions, employers, parents and the individual all have a part to play. Universities, however, are presently too heavily focused on technical skills and they have the key responsibility to ensure graduate employability.
- Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering