"Yes Granny, I Drive the Train": A case study on an Engineer's soft skills

Written by E. Wrenn Barrett, PE - V&M Regional Vice President [SC/GA]

Having been a registered Professional Engineer now for over 30 years, guess I am now entering the “Golden Years” of my career; causing me to pause to look back on the many roads that have brought me to this point in my life. During my high school years, I had no idea what “I wanted to be when I grew up”. I had no real role models, but I always really liked math and science, which is what eventually lead me into engineering. In college, I majored in Civil Engineering and minored in Psychology, which at first seemed to be an odd combination. But during the latter part of my career, I have found that my minor in Psychology has been almost as useful as my Civil Engineering degree! Which brings me to the main point of this blog – Hard Skills within the Civil Engineering profession are absolutes, but Soft Skills are what makes you a well-rounded professional.

A big part of my professional career was spent at the South Carolina Department of Transportation. I was very blessed to have held a variety of positions and learned a great deal about soft skills during my tenure there. The Executive Director during most of my time there taught me, and all of us, to always stay focused on the Mission of Department and ask Why? Engineering is by definition based on scientific principles natural laws, physics, math, geometry – very black & white “hard skills”. But as I progressed through my career, I learned that there are a lot of grey areas that require more than just my engineering training.

The Engineers Council for Professional Development defines Engineering in the United States as the creative application of “scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, or works utilizing them singly or in combination; or to construct or operate the same with full cognizance of their design; or to forecast their behavior under specific operating conditions; all as respects an intended function, economics of operation and safety to life and property.”

Notice any “soft skills” in the above? I have always heard that “you can be the smartest engineer around, but if you cannot express yourself and your ideas effectively, then your skills are not as productive as they could be”. One of Stephen Covey’s original 7 Habits - “Seek to Understand, then to Be Understood” - provides great insight on Communication skills.

The ability to engage with others effectively is of course paramount in successful “projects”. Emotional Intelligence, defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically”, is another important soft skill required for successful teamwork on projects. Most engineers by nature are not great communicators, so it is up to each of us to improve our soft skills in order to effectively work with all the many disciplined individuals that are a part of our daily work tasks.

Use soft skill to educate those who are not familiar with the Engineering profession or what it means to be an engineer is what I call “Telling Our Story”. Early on in my career, I remember vividly trying to explain to my Grandmother what I did for a living. After many attempts I finally gave in and said, “Yes Granny, I drive the train”. My story includes 24 years as a public servant at various public agencies and 12 years as a consulting engineer in the private sector of my profession. In my current position as a regional vice president at Vaughn & Melton Consulting Engineers, I still enjoy working on projects that improve the quality of life for us all. My heart is always in the mode of a public servant, which has been instilled in me during my career. Those learned soft skills are still just as important today as the Statics and Dynamics hard skills I learned long ago.

The Engineering Code of Ethics provides absolute guidelines for engineers through our fundamental Canons, so felt it is important to include them in this blog. Beginning with “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties”, these Canons insert some of the soft skills needed to complement our hard skills. Below are the Canons for our Code of Ethics.

The Fundamental Canons for Engineers

  1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.

  2. Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.

  3. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

  4. Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest.

  5. Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.

  6. Engineers shall associate only with reputable persons or organizations.

  7. Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.

All these Canons have always resonated within me during my career. To all who are in our profession or working toward becoming an engineer - make sure you develop both your hard skills and soft skills as you progress in your career. I am very proud of the accomplishments of those in my professional have made world-wide. So, let’s all keep driving that train!


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