Engineers at work. Credit:  Simon Jarratt

+ In a world where projects are increasingly multidisciplinary and collaborative, engineers need soft skills to match their technical expertise.

Increasingly, engineers need a broad range of soft skills as much as they need deep technical skills. Yet I think this aspect of training is often overlooked.

In countries such as the UK, the focus in recent years has been on getting more young people to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. Yes, of course engineers need to be able to work from first principles and add up – but today they also need much broader abilities such as interdisciplinary teamworking and problem-solving.

They need these abilities if they are to work on projects that are becoming increasingly multidisciplinary. Twenty years ago, I would have expected to see just a few technical disciplines working on a project. Today a typical project could involve dozens of different specialisms from engineering to environmental planning and construction management. So the key is including people in your team who can work across and in between these disciplines to bring all these different and competing strands together.

For example, on a rail project this doesn’t mean you need engineers who know everything about overhead line electrification and plant, permanent way, signalling and planning. But for a successful design you do need people on the team who have a broad understanding of all these things and the skills to coordinate them.

Clients are already demanding this from us. In bids for projects, skills such as collaboration often account for the primary organisation’s assessment and these soft skills are also tested in the practical elements of a bid. 

Indeed, collaborative working is attracting more attention throughout the supply chain and our projects.

So what should we be teaching new engineers? At Arup’s Graduate Skills Week, we focus on how to interact, build relationships and work as a team. If the industry can nurture these skills successfully, it will get the inter-disciplinary engineers it needs – integrators who can bring disparate skills together.

My experience is primarily UK-based, and I’d be fascinated to know what the situation is globally. Are engineers in your country getting the training they need? Is there enough focus on developing soft skills?