Get that job: essential skills for every graduate engineer

To land the perfect engineering job, you're going to need more than technical know how. Here are 9 tips to make sure you stand out from other graduates.
Ryan Matthews
Team GradAustralia
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As a graduate, you’ll already be familiar with the skills required to succeed in your chosen branch of engineering. For example, if you’re planning to be a civil engineer, it’s practically mandatory that you understand the fundamentals of fluid and structural mechanics. Similarly, it will be difficult to flourish as a software engineer if you haven’t yet mastered some primary coding languages, and, if you’re an aspiring materials engineer, you’ll need to know your way around the periodic table.

Of course, it would be impractical to go into all of the skills that graduates require in specific engineering subdisciplines. However, there are a host of attributes that promise to benefit engineers of all stripes, whether they’re maintaining aircraft or developing new consumer electronic products. Read on to learn more about these indispensable soft skills and what you can do to acquire or develop them.

Essential engineering skills

Accuracy

In 2017, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to a trio of American scientists for their successful detection of gravitational waves. This feat was made possible by the construction of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), or, as it was described by one expert, ‘the most sensitive instrument in history’.

Accuracy was paramount to the project, for even a lightning strike across the globe, or the revving of a motorbike on a nearby motorway, threatened to produce false results. And so engineers and physicists worked together, creating a system of precision lasers aimed at mirrors polished to within a hundred-millionth of an inch of a perfect sphere and suspended within subterranean vacuum chambers. Once completed, LIGO listened carefully for several years until in 2015, it heard a soft chirp that took approximately one billion years to reach our planet.

Of course, LIGO is an extreme example of accuracy and its importance to engineering initiatives. However, it reminds us that accurate outcomes require accurate planning; the construction of accurate instruments; accurate communication; accurate measurements (and accurate tools for taking them); and accurate calculations. Insufficient accuracy in any of these domains can have the same effect on an engineering project as a minor course correction would on a space probe – given enough time, an adjustment of half a millimetre becomes a centimetre, becomes a metre, becomes a kilometre, becomes an enormous variation.

So, whether you’re designing buildings, performing quality assurance tests on a robot, or working on the next Nobel Prize-winning machine, be ready to prioritise accuracy – your employers will expect nothing less.

Agility

Often, the technical demands of engineering steal attention away from the physicality of engineering. Yet, if you’re a mining engineer, a civil engineer, or another type of engineer altogether, site visits could have you climbing ladders, stretching, entering dangerous environments, squeezing into narrow spots, inspecting heavy machinery, or performing other tasks that require agility. Bear this in mind if you have reason to believe that your career could be physically demanding – and, even if it won’t be, remember that physical health is a precursor to overall health, and can have a marked impact on your longevity, mental health, productivity, and sleep quality.

Attention to detail

Built between 1924 and 1926, the 200-metre-long St Francis Dam promised to supply the people of California with potable water. The chief engineer, William Mulholland, had no doubts about its ability to do so. Alerted to unusual leaks on March 12, 1928, he performed an inspection and announced that there was no cause for concern. Twelve hours passed – and then the dam collapsed outwards, unleashing a violent flood that killed at least 430 people.

Several subsequent investigations concluded that the cause was a negligent oversight. Mulholland hadn’t accounted for the porosity of the dam’s foundations, which softened when wet. His career in ruins, he spent the rest of his life as a recluse.  

Unfortunately, from the wrought iron rivets on the Titanic to the faulty O-rings on the Space Shuttle Challenger, the history of engineering provides numerous, similar examples of catastrophes that could have been averted with a little more attention to detail. Granted, lives may not be at stake in your career – but, then again, perhaps they will be. Either way, attention to detail is one of the fundamental skills required of engineers from all disciplines.

Being attentive in this way requires you to consider all aspects of a project – their strengths, their weaknesses, the way they relate to one another, and the way they interact with the human and physical environments. It also means treating all of these factors as equally important, at least until you’re in a position to set informed priorities. Every engineering achievement is the sum of all its parts, from the longest girder to the shortest screw – it’s your responsibility to pay attention to them all.

A commitment to ongoing education

If you were hoping that the learning would end after graduation, think again: engineers, like doctors, lawyers, and other professionals in fields that experience frequent breakthroughs and amendments, are responsible for staying abreast of contemporary shifts in engineering practices. For a mechanical engineer, this could mean attending conferences, reading academic papers, and mastering new technologies. For a civil engineer, it might involve learning about new construction methods and materials, participating in ongoing training schemes, or delivering presentations on recent projects.

Ongoing education is particularly important for engineers who aim to achieve professional accreditation. The most competitive accreditation offered by Australia’s chief accrediting body, Engineers Australia, results in one being designated a chartered engineer. To maintain this status, chartered engineers must commit to continuing professional development, which could involve attending conferences, seminars, training courses, presentations and site visits.

Communication skills

There are two primary ways in which communication will be a fundamental skill for you as an engineer. First, there will be situations in which, as a member of a team, you must discuss challenges, and attempt to solve them, in collaboration with other engineers. This involves knowing how to share ideas, critique them, and accept criticism of your own ideas, with respect, patience, and open-mindedness. You can develop such attributes by researching interpersonal skills and pursuing opportunities for teamwork.

Second, as a professional engineer, you may often find yourself in situations where you must explain your findings to stakeholders who don’t have the same technical background. The ability to translate complex concepts into comprehensible language without introducing inaccuracies or unwarranted simplifications is highly prized in the engineering profession. Remember, clients won’t always be engineers, so the ability to help them understand engineering concepts will give you an enormous professional advantage.

Creative thinking

How do you build the world’s tallest suspension bridge? Or engineer software that will impact the lives of millions of people? The answers to all such questions require a type of creative thinking that often distinguishes those engineers who go on to make outstanding contributions to their fields.

There is no single way in which creative thinking expresses itself in engineering. Sometimes, it can involve approaching a challenge with ideas borrowed from an unexpected field of research. Sometimes it means temporarily setting aside your assumptions about ‘what works’ to ask questions that might seem counter-intuitive or even silly.  Sometimes, it involves trying different ideas just to see what sticks.

Unfortunately for engineers, and many other professionals, creative thinking has a reputation for being something too nebulous to teach. The common wisdom says that you’re either creative or you’re not. This is untrue. In fact, the techniques used to stimulate creativity can be mastered, and creative thinking, however reluctantly, will follow as surely as a balloon follows the string that pulls it. So, if you feel like you’d benefit from a little more creativity, research the topic with an open mind – whether you end up sketching mind maps or trying on different coloured thinking caps, you might just find something that helps you generate the solution you’ve been hoping for.

Mastery of relevant software

Modern engineering is a computer-driven enterprise, with modelling technology an essential tool for many engineering professionals. The chances are that you’ve already been exposed to a few of the more popular programs – AutoCAD and Rhinoceros 3D are particularly well-known, while MATLAB has been the bane of many an engineering student’s university existence. However, you will likely find that your specific subdiscipline of engineering possesses specialised software of its own. It goes without saying that the ability to use this software with confidence and skill will be critical to your career success.

Mathematical ability

To succeed as an engineer, it’s imperative that you can handle the mathematical processes that underlie many fundamental engineering principles. This doesn’t mean you need to develop a savant-like ability to solve complex problems in your head. However, you should know the ideas represented by important formulae. For example, while no civil engineer is expected to mentally perform truss analysis, they should know that ‘2J = M+R’ is the equation they’ll need (along with a calculator), and what each letter in the equation represents.

Respect for health and safety protocols

Respect for health and safety protocols is more of a requirement than a skill, especially within the engineering industry. For the sake of your own safety, and that of your colleagues, it’s essential that you respect health and safety protocols. According to a 2017 publication by Safe Work Australia, the 2016 workplace fatality rate decreased by 49 per cent from its 2007 peak. This is largely attributed to improved workplace safety regulations, better enforcement of those regulations, more widespread access to appropriate training, and diligent advocacy. Yet, in 2016, there were still 182 workplace fatalities – and 14 of those were ‘professionals’.

Of course, workplace accidents occur for all sorts of reasons, and employers are as responsible as employees, if not more so, when it comes to creating safe, healthy, and supportive environments. Nevertheless, your adherence to policies that aim to eliminate or mitigate risk is a necessity.

How many of these skills do you have under your belt? If you’re lacking in some areas, pick one or two and work out how you can develop these skills – an easy one to start with is communication. Here are fourteen proven ways to improve your communication skills. For more tips on continuing your engineering education, visit the Engineers Australia website.