It's time to address the soft-skills gap

Have you ever taken a break from something and then gone back? Did you go back to the same place? The same career? Or something completely different? Maybe it’s time to go back to school!

I’ll be blogging this year on going back to school, work, and whatever we decide to discuss, This month I’ll introduce you briefly to me and to the students I now teach. I worked in industry in a variety of engineering roles for more than 25 years before beginning my "second career" in academia. I earned a Ph.D. in engineering education at Purdue University, and for the past three years I've been an assistant professor at Purdue Polytechnic Institute.

Why am I now here, teaching at Purdue? As a hiring manager, I saw so many students convinced that, graduating with that long-awaited degree, they knew it all. Envision someone who thinks he or she will hit the ground running, only to find himself or herself stumbling and winding up sprawled on the ground. Sadly, I saw so many dejected new grads! Their enthusiasm waned; they were confused and a bit dejected.

My motivation was to move into the side of academia and helps students make that transition into the workplace. I know what’s on both sides of the transition, and I wanted to help students step confidently and know how to ask the right questions. Most think they are leaving the academic world behind, and they are. However, they are also moving into a world where they need to continue to learn every day in order to thrive in new professional roles. They need to know it’s OK to learn and continue learning as they move through life. Some of the things I’ve found students lacking in are communications skills, knowledge of where to get reliable technical information, and the ability to solve real problems – not just those presented in a book or in a sterile setting.

Many of my industry colleagues and I have identified students who struggle with developing presentations, including the right materials in those presentations, and NOT reading them when in front of their audience. We all agree that this should have been covered in the academic setting; however, clearly that has not always been the reality. Students need to be able to discuss, write about, and most of all comprehend the material they are sharing or investigating. Too often, even well into a person’s career, these skills remain underdeveloped.

I cannot tell you how many students have contacted me post-graduation or post-entry into career to find out where to get reliable information on a technical topic! I do need to give these graduates credit for are asking – what concerns me are the students who don’t ask. Many of those who contact me are concerned that whatever information they found on the internet may be faulty or may not provide enough guidance to correctly perform the assigned tasks that they have been assigned.

The ability to solve real problems varies from student to student. It's important to remember that working on sterile projects in a classroom or a lab does not necessarily translate to real-world problem-solving. Although some students come by this skill naturally, not all do. Further, in their post-graduation careers, students will need to be able to collaborate and communicate effectively on projects with team members of widely differing experience levels and backgrounds. 

How can schools and industrial organizations better prepare students and recent grads to succeed on the job? As we move through the year, I will discuss specific areas of interest focused on the soft skills or interpersonal skills that are not usually part of the technical curriculum. In future blog posts, I’ll share some of the strategies used to help students improve these skill sets.

Anne Lucietto is one of Putman Media's Influential Women in Manufacturing for 2018. Meet and join us in celebrating the inaugural class of IWiM honorees on Sept. 26 at the 4th annual Smart Industry conference.