The need to boost ‘professional skills’ in graduate employees is high

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Young manager and foreman looking at machine on production line

Employers of engineers increasingly require more well-rounded graduates with more than just technical qualifications. The answer isn’t ‘degreeless’ jobs, it’s employees who have more than a degree.

The below article was first published by Create Digital on 12 August 2021.

So much knowledge in the field of engineering can only be gained on the job. A typical degree can easily assess and certify you for technical know-how, but it’s not so easy for it to give you the core skills that come with years of experience. 

This is not to say engineering is vulnerable to the trend of ‘degreeless jobs’, where prominent companies de-emphasise the importance of a tertiary education in their recruitment processes. 

The trend has to be understood in context. In 2019 Apple CEO Tim Cook said that 50 per cent of jobs at his company were filled by people without four year degrees, but a lot of those positions have job titles like ‘brand director’ and ‘account manager’. These are not engineering roles, they’re roles where the primary and secondary focus is on problem solving and people management.

Moreover, Cook was making this claim alongside his efforts to encourage more institutions to teach children and young adults how to code – a hard skill.

Nevertheless, the demand for soft skills is now so strong that there is an acceptance that ‘soft’ is no longer the appropriate label. ‘Professional skills’, ‘core skills’ or ‘enterprise skills’ are becoming preferred.

“The need for these skills is not just about Australia and it is not just about engineering,” says Jason Fletcher, Engineering Education Australia’s (EEA) Education Manager. 

“But when Australian engineering businesses invest in bringing such skills on board, and when 100 per cent of their graduates are fully prepared for success, those businesses are more able to perform and compete at a globally competitive level.”

This requirement for more rounded engineers is a global one. The 2020 Survey for Skills Gaps In Recent Engineering Graduates by the American Society for Engineering Education, defines the essential skills in two groups – technical and professional.

Professional skills include communication, emotional intelligence, teamwork, curiosity, a desire for continuous learning, critical thinking, cultural awareness, high ethical standards and more. They are as essential as technical skills when it comes to thriving in a workplace.

For each of these skills, an average of only 31 per cent of graduates felt they were ‘very prepared’ for what the workplace might hold.

That lack of preparedness is what Engineers Australia’s Graduate Program, delivered by EEA (the professional body’s training provider) is aimed at addressing.

“It’s an 18-month program designed for early-career engineers, typically those who are in their first job out of university with less than three years’ experience,” says Fletcher. 

“The topics are crafted to help people transition from that academic, university environment to the world of work, and provide the practical skills and knowledge they need to launch their career and perform in the engineering profession. It gives employers the ability to get younger engineers up to speed as quickly as possible.”

Graduates tend to have all of the latest knowledge in terms of tools, methodologies and techniques, but less of an understanding of how a workplace operates, or important skills that drive performance in the engineering environment.

“If you’ve studied project management, that’s great, but what practical experience do you have engaging with stakeholders or managing teams?” asks Fletcher.

“An experienced engineer told me that project management is 20 per cent about engineering and 80 per cent about managing people. This program creates a bridge between what has been learned during a degree and what can’t be learned at university, because it’s not solely about theory and principles.”

The Graduate Program, which in 2020 was awarded Best Blended Learning Model at the LearnX Live! international learning and development awards program, has been recognised as an effective way to attract and retain talent, as well as boost organisational performance.

The program is delivered online to ensure graduates can continue their professional development from any location, and combines interactive e-learning, virtual workshops from subject matter experts, as well as webinars by industry professionals and thought leaders. 

The program goes through a continual improvement process to ensure the learning outcomes align to the needs graduates have today and those they will have in the future. 

“Not only do we stay in touch with the graduates to find out what was valuable and what could be improved, but we stay in touch with their employers,” Fletcher says. “Often we’ll speak with HR, Learning and Development managers, engineering managers and executives.

“From the latest review, we developed insight into the very clear need for engineers who can work across disciplines and teams,” says Fletcher. “That requires emotional intelligence, communication skills, stakeholder engagement skills, innovative tendencies and creative problem-solving talents.” 

To find out more about Engineers Australia’s Graduate Program, and whether it’s right for you or your team, visit the Engineers Australia’s Graduate Program webpage and make an enquiry.