Changing Stereotypes: Engineers Can (and Need to) Communicate

Engineers and communication do not mix: this notion remains commonplace among engineers themselves, as well as part of the stereotype of “the engineer” that is pervasive in the public eye. This is despite the fact that communication is now seen to be pivotal to key engineering tasks, such as analysis, problem solving, and design, and in most of the engineering profession. But do the next generation of engineers still understand themselves and their profession in this way? In their upcoming presentation at ProComm 2019 in Aachen, Germany, Anneliese Watt, Kayla Maxey, Patricia Brackin and Jordan Trachtenberg of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology tackle this question through a surveys given to 168 engineering students. 

Their initial results dispute the notion that engineers see communication as something to avoid or as a peripheral skill. Students indicated that they expected to communicate frequently, and that communication would be an important aspect of their jobs.  When asked whether communication skills would be important to their career success as an engineer, a large majority (94%) either agreed or strongly agreed.  This suggests either a promising shift in the conventional understanding of communication’s role within the engineering discipline, or perhaps that the presumption was incorrect to begin with.  If these views are changing, what might be the cause or impact on engineering identity? Their discussion in Aachen will try to address some of those questions as well, as they unpack more of their data. 

While the above study focuses on engineering students, another study from Rose Hulman, led by Richard House, Jessica Livingston and Sarah Summers, examines recent graduates’ communication skills from the perspective of their managers and employers, providing important insight into their needs. In Aachen, they will present the results of their semi-structured interviews with at least 15 company representatives, which have yielded a few important points. 

Their results suggest, for example, that informal communication – that is the day to day communicating over face to face, in group meetings and over email – is more important than formal communication. Recent engineering graduates are also less prepared for that kind of informal communication. Email – including etiquette, technique, and over reliance – was also seen as a common problem, producing numerous significant failures, some of which could have been addressed by a phone call or a face to face conversation. And perhaps surprisingly, active, attentive listening was identified as being more important than speaking with confidence: understanding questions and context is a prerequisite to properly responding to a colleague or manager. 

Check into these two presentations in Aachen, Germany at ProComm 2019 for some insight into engineers’ and engineering managers’ understanding of communication as an engineering skill. And come back to this site for more details and links to their papers after the conference!