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The importance of human skills in today’s engineering graduates

2017.08.24

By: Stephanie Price, P.Eng., CAE, Interim CEO, Engineers Canada

Scott Stirrett’s column in the Globe and Mail earlier this month raised some great points about the importance of developing ‘soft skills’—or ‘human skills’ as he prefers to call them—in all Canadians. There needs to be a national focus, he wrote, on marrying technical skills with human proficiencies like critical thinking, communication, and teamwork if today’s young Canadians are to be successful in the workforce of tomorrow.

Those of us in the engineering profession couldn’t agree more.

That’s why the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board—which accredits post-secondary engineering programs in Canada—values these human skills in the same way it values technical engineering competencies. Both are included in the list of criteria that programs must meet to be accredited.

By the time a student graduates from an accredited engineering program in Canada, they possess attributes in 12 distinct areas ranging from problem analysis and investigation to communication skills, individual and team work, professionalism and life-long learning. They will have completed a capstone design project, and accumulated at least 2,000 hours of classroom and lab-based learning.

Stirrett wrote that more emphasis should be placed on supporting work-integrated learning to provide students with real-world experiences. Engineering programs in Canada offer robust experiential and problem-based learning approaches, which may be supplemented with co-op and professional experience years that allow students to gain practical work experience in designing, building and testing prototypes. Programs have also forged partnerships with industry to link students with real-world testing environments.

But learning does not end at convocation. As a profession, we also have a role to play in instilling these human skills in our younger colleagues once they graduate from their program. Canada’s engineering employers have a responsibility to continue to develop these new graduates and teach them the skills necessary—whether they be technical or human skills—to succeed in their industry. When an individual graduates from an engineering program, they’ve only completed the first step in becoming a professional engineer in Canada. To become fully licensed, their education must be supported by three to four years of relevant work experience, verification of professionalism and ethics, demonstration of good character, and strong language skills in either English or French.

Stirrett was right—as our workforce evolves, we must focus on sharpening our human skills. The engineering profession recognizes this and has been working hard to ensure that today’s engineering graduates, engineers-in-training, and professional engineers are equipped with the technical and human skills they need to be successful throughout their career.