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Bridging Hard Science and Soft Skills

two men greeting one another

Given the historically tight labor market and even more constrained engineering talent pool, employers might be justified in focusing solely on finding candidates with the technical skills necessary to get the job done. However, that narrow approach can lead to downstream issues that interfere with satisfactory work performance and meeting business objectives.

“A job candidate who only has technical skills can probably accomplish about 90 percent of the work in engineering,” notes Mark Mays, Practice Lead for Aerotek. “But the remaining 10 percent can have a disproportionate impact on whether or not a new employee is ultimately successful in that job.”

How should employers approach the issue in order to maximize their chances of successfully recruiting and retaining engineers? Mays offers some recommendations.

“First, you have to consider what kind of environment you’re hiring for,” he explains. “Today, mid-level jobs are more defined and specialized, and are part of a larger project team. Generally there are circumstances where interaction and collaboration are necessary, even if just with other team members. Ask yourself whether or not this employee will be working with other internal departments such as sales or marketing, finance, software/IT or external players like suppliers or customers.”

Setting the stage for a successful interview

“Engineers as a group tend to be very analytical and logic-oriented. Because of this, their interpersonal skills might not be on full display in an interview situation. But there are strategies employers can use to ensure that they are creating an environment where they will be more apparent,” Mays says.

“I’ve found that asking candidates what interesting projects they’ve worked on in the past elicits really insightful information. While they’re describing the technical aspects of their work, you can also get a sense of how much energy and excitement he or she brings to a job that might not be otherwise obvious,” he says. This approach fits the behavioral interviewing model, which relies on having candidates supply specific facts and experiences rather than broad concepts and hypothetical situations.

“For engineers in particular, the link between hard and soft skills is curiosity,” notes Mays. “In describing work they’ve done in the past, or even hobbies connected to their specialty, they often generate conversations that help employers learn more about what characteristics a candidate might have, such as leadership skills or an affinity for collaborative teamwork.”

Mays also recommends that employers keep an open mind. “It’s crucial to distinguish between requirements and preferences. An employer with a type ‘A’ personality might think that only similar personality types will be a good fit, whereas in reality a wider range of personalities often generates more innovation and better outcomes.”

A hiring manager might be well served to rely on more internal partners to make the best hires, he adds.

Human resources departments have become more sophisticated in recent years. “Rather than just explaining payroll and benefits, they’re evolved to become more of a strategic partner in hiring.”

References are key

Professional and personal references can be a crucial tool in determining how well a new employee will demonstrate the soft skills necessary to be an asset to the team. “At Aerotek, we always ask for a candidate’s top two to three references, ensuring that they are from someone who directly supervised the candidate. But we also solicit peer reviews — a coworker or even a vendor or supplier the candidate worked with — to build a fuller picture of past performance. References can be a good counterpoint to the knowledge gained from phone and in-person interviews, especially in judging soft skills,” Mays concludes.

If you’d like to learn more about identifying soft skills, contact Aerotek now.