Conversations with engineer candidates: Get ready for a (pleasant) surprise!

November 20, 2014

Recruiters likely prepare for a few awkward conversations at an undergraduate design presentation or college job fair.

Lengthy technical explanations that feel more like classroom lectures than ice-breakers have been an easy fallback for future engineers, said Christina Bourgeois, director of the Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s (ECE) Undergraduate Professional Communications Program.

But Bourgeois is personally breaking down the stereotype of the engineer who can’t communicate — one student at a time. Is the era of the non-communicative engineer over?

Maybe so, she said.

“From the very minute (students) start taking their core courses in engineering,” she said, “we instill in them a sense that communication is going to be your job. We tell them documentation is the project. And we repeat that over and over in the curriculum.”

Bourgeois has been teaching undergraduates to speak and write professionally since May, 2000. “So we have a decade and a half of training our ECE students to be prepared for the realities of communicating in the workplace.”

The resulting generation of students now in the workforce made a valuable impression on recruiters, she said. Now, recruiters seek out ECE graduates, “because they know that part of their training has been communication,” she said.

And that’s really saying something, said Bourgeois’ colleague, Jacqueline Snedeker, the director for the Phillips 66 Technical Communications Program for the institute’s School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering.

“I think that’s the stereotype, that electrical engineers are the worst in communication,” she said.

The chemical engineers Snedeker teaches to communicate tend to apply their engineering knowhow to other professions, she said. “We end up sending a lot of our students to medical school and law school, things that aren’t just pure engineering. So we do put a big focus on communication skills.”

Regardless of which field they pursue, Snedeker said there are plenty of reasons engineering students need help with communication skills. Most of them have to do with the nature of engineering as a discipline.

Often an engineer’s work gets done from the bottom up, she said, full of hours of getting data, doing analysis, wrestling with conclusions. Communicating their findings is – often confoundingly so — the opposite process, she said. The end results are more important than the procedural details.

Bourgeois agrees.

“Engineering is a conservative discipline,” she said. “There is a lot of group work and collaboration, but much of what is done is solitary.”

Engineering students don’t get many opportunities to talk about their work with a diverse crowd, she said.

“I think they tend to get tied up in their own language, in their own world,” she said.

Communication skills can actually be most difficult to learn for the brightest students, Snedeker said.

“Students that walk into our course with a 4.0 are often the ones that have the hardest time, especially with oral communication skills. I think they put a lot of pressure on themselves and they’re used to getting everything right, getting all A’s ,” she said.

“They’re so used to having to be perfect all the time. They haven’t developed the flexibility to think on their feet, especially during the question and answer period. That is similar to what they might experience in a job interview.”

It’s an anxiety that plagues many engineers, even in the middle of their careers, said Jeremy Reed, a signal processing engineer. But it’s getting better, he said.

“From what I’ve seen, most engineers can communicate,” he said. “It’s not that they’re bad at it, but they’re fearful.”

“They’ve been told all their life, ‘Oh, you’re good at science and math, that’s what you should focus on,” Reed said. “But the truth is that if you’re going to be good at science and math, you’d better be able to explain it to someone else. Otherwise, what’s the use of it?”

By the time they’re in graduate school, engineering students have had the opportunity to present their work at conferences, so speaking to broader audiences is a little easier, he said.

It’s also more nuanced.

“When you’re talking to academics you want to describe what you’re doing in a very abstract way. Whereas when you get into industry you really have to talk about the more practical sides of how you’re going to accomplish what you want to do. For government you’re often trying to paint the big picture, how is this project going to be helpful to them. So all of those aspects (of communication) can challenge you, especially when those people are all in the same room,” he said.

Reed is quick to point out that even when interviewing with the hiring engineer as opposed to a recruiter, there can still be some of those stereotypical issues.

In his own experience interviewing with engineering firms after graduate school, “They focused a little bit too much on the technical aspects and didn’t focus on the other parts of the job.”

“Like, where is the place located? The day-to-day life things that are actually kind of important for you to decide where you want to be,” he said. “I made a mistake and ended up in Buffalo for a year.”

Bourgeois believes the future holds a lot fewer awkward conversations between job candidates, recruiters and hiring engineers.

“We know there’s a communication gap,” Bourgeois said. “We have been systematically working to solve this problem in engineering.”

“We literally practice in class hand shaking, eye contact and elevator pitch to get ready for career fair,” she said. “The (students) really are prepared. And they come back and tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it worked!’”

Photo Credit: ashraful kadir