In India, electronics engineering as a career has always attracted the student community in a big way. Testimony to this fact is an ever-increasing number of aspirants taking various entrance exams to qualify and enroll for their choice of engineering branch. Throughout the course, one learns and specialises in a particular branch of engineering theoretically and practically. However, just technical skills are not enough as the most common HR question is: Beyond technical skills, experience and knowledge, what added value do you bring to the organisation? Therefore soft skills are critical to make you employable.
What exactly are soft skills?
Naresh Narasimhan, country marketing manager, Tektronix, says, “In the 21st century and going forward, three things are important—ability to communicate an idea visually, ability to have a balanced point-of-view on key issues and ability to convert ideas to results.”
The concept of soft skills is not limited to just plain communication skills but it also includes aspects such as people skills.
Dr Pallab Bandyopadhyay, director-HR, Citrix India, explains: “In the broader context, soft skills would also include negotiation, decision making, reasoning and problem solving, and conflict-resolution skills required in today’s work environment.”
“While technical professionals are often selected and trained based on measurable talents and skills such as knowledge of OS or software programming skills—which are prerequisites to starting a career in engineering and technology—intangible skills such as language proficiency, ability to work with global teams and positive attitude often count in making their career a rewarding one. These intangible skills are classified as soft-skills,” adds Sudhanshu Pandit, director-HR, Symantec India.
When evaluating a candidate on soft skills, HR professionals look at not only his ability to communicate his thoughts clearly and concisely but also his personality and problem-solving skills.
Defining soft skills, John Prohod-sky, founder and principal consultant, Future Envisioned, says, “Soft skills are non-technical, interpersonal and communication skills required by an engineer to successfully solve problems and apply his technical skills.”
Throwing light on how soft skills are directly proportional to one’s personality, Rajesh Choudhary, HR head, Xilinx India, says, “Personality traits such as common sense, optimism, responsibility, integrity, attitude and behavioural competencies that include analytical thinking, result orientation and achievement, communication, teamwork, conflict management, customer orientation and attention to details come under soft skills.”
As soft skills cover all the aspects related to human behaviour, Zubin Rashid, managing partner and head of training, ZRINDIA, believes that “Just as hard skills teach us about domain-specific skills like technology, products and processes, soft skills are about interacting with people with whom you work.”
Every company looks for a different mix of skills and experience and it is not enough just to be a subject matter expert. Communication is an integral part of soft skills.
Surinder Bhagat, country HR head, Freescale Semiconductor, India, says, “Soft skills can also refer to a set of skills that determine how one interacts with others in a way that the company as such gets represented well. These skills are applicable to all internal as well as external forums where employees are making key interactions.”
Tina Vas, vice president-global HR, Collabera, says “Simply put, soft skills have more to do with who we are than what we know.”
Soft skills critically impact the way an individual translates his expertise across to his team and further to the whole organisation.
Ramana Vemuri, VP-process and operations, Cigniti Technologies, believes that soft skills enhance an individual’s interactions, job performance and career prospects. According to him, emotional intelligence is the critical element that defines the core of soft skills a person is equipped with.
Soft skills in today’s India
According to a recent report by employability assessment company Aspiring Minds, 56 per cent engineering graduates in India lack soft skills and cognitive skills. Non-technical aspects of engineering such as communications, relationships, temperament, emotional intelligence and risk management make a difference between success and failure. Understanding and adapting to the working environment is just as crucial as getting the job itself.
Prohodsky says, “Engineering is the application of hard sciences to solve real problems but what they rarely teach in colleges is that engineering, in addition to being a technical activity, is an economic activity and, most importantly, a human activity.”
According to him, the ability to understand company and work team culture is the most under-appreciated soft skill.
Bhagat says, “As companies become more global, soft skills are highly desirable and required in more positions now than ten or even five years ago. You may have an excellent knowledge base in engineering or technology, perhaps even a PhD, and maybe bilingual but if you have not developed good skills in communicating, interacting and people resource management, you have already limited your opportunities and chance of success.”
Vas adds, “Networking is also important; engineers need to keep in touch with alumni as well as industry experts via various interactive forums to understand the ground realities better.”
Why you should continuously improve your soft skills
“Soft skills are applied emotional intelligence and as such, they are very important. As engineers, we are taught to think and apply the logic of math and science. However, we are being ruled by emotions,” says Prohodsky.
Soft skills are very essential for personal and professional development of individuals. “In today’s economy, it is even more important considering a significant portion of Indian GDP comes from services sector. To support this growth in services sector, organisations require talents who possess greater soft skills along with hard skills,” notes Rajesh Choudhary.
“Technical skills may take you to the doorstep but it is your soft skills that will open up the door for you,” believes Dr Pallab.
Adding on the growing importance of soft skills in today’s world, Vemuri says, “They (soft skills) are in demand than ever. Increasing possibility of interactions with global peers, customers, virtual teams and cross-cultural discussions mandate employers to look out for fine-tuned, polished workforce.”
“Soft skills facilitate efficiency and effectiveness at work,” says Sunil Pathak, HR director, Cadence Design Systems. While flawless technical expertise is the primary necessity, soft skills are imperative to ensure high-quality contribution and delivery.
Pandit explains, “An engineer might be excellent at writing code to solve a particular problem but unless he possesses soft skills, he would neither be able to understand the problem faced by a customer nor explain how his suggested method makes the best fitted solution for the customer’s problem.”
Dr Pallab believes that soft skills are as important as technical skills due to two main factors: “One is that employees are being sent on projects to international locations, where they need to articulate their thoughts and actions to become productive. Second, with enhanced globalisation, virtual communication has taken a front seat in today’s organisations.”
An engineer is rewarded for his ability to make decisions, manage risks and creativity. Therefore soft skills are vital for an individual to get employed and grow in an organisation.
Myth 1: It is the hard skills (technical skills) that get you a job, not soft skills.Truth: You need to balance both.
Myth 2: Being strong in analytical aptitude, quantitative expertise and information-gathering ability is enough to fetch a job.
Truth: In addition to the above, you need strategic thinking, written and oral communication skills, leadership skills, and adaptability.
A ‘soft skills’ survey
Recently, EFY conducted an opinion survey of engineering students, fresh professionals and industry analysts through various social media platforms to understand the importance of soft skills, apart from tech knowhow, for a successful career.
62.63 per cent respondents believed that soft skills were important but not the deciding factor. 25.29 per cent believed that soft skills were extremely important. Remaining 12.08 per cent believed that these were important as complementary skills.
EFY Survey results on soft skills across various social media platforms
Hard skills vs soft skills— what you should focus on
Let’s take the example of software engineers. They need to be skilled in software development and testing to be able to build, test and provide support for the applications developed by them. However, to do that successfully, they need to work in a team and interact with team members to provide the best products and services. Any misunderstanding or strife between team members would result in products and services that would not be of the highest standards. Computer programming in many languages is a hard skill, whereas problem solving and communication are soft skills.
“There are key differences between hard skills and soft skills but both are important and ideally complement each other,” says Choudhary. “It’s like IQ vs EQ. Soft skills use the emotional centre (EQ), i.e., the right brain, whereas hard skills use the logical center (IQ), i.e., the left brain.”
Dr Bandyopadhyay says, “In today’s corporate world it is no more an ‘either or’ proposition. Striking the right balance between technical and behavioural skills is the key to one’s personal and career success. Weighing the importance of the two may largely depend on the role in question.”
Finding soft skills ‘hard’? Here is how to enhance them
According to Rashid, there are three ways to enhance one’s soft skills. The first step is to gain knowledge on the subject.
“Communication process and its importance, ways to improve relationships with people and qualities of a good team member or leader can be studied through various books available in the market,” suggests Rashid. Books written by seasoned professionals and businessmen are recommended.
The second step is to practice the knowledge gained in work scenarios.
“Knowledge gained but not practised would result in forgetting the learnt points. Picking up what one has learnt, and applying it and practicing it and then moving to the second point would be more effective,” feels Rashid.
It is ‘one at a time’ approach to learning new skills. The other way would be to attend learning programmes conducted by professional trainers who have been in the industry for quite some time. Training programmes have a hands-on approach, which results in faster learning and more retention.
“Mentorship programmes, group discussions, mock presentations, role play and understanding of the organisation’s work ethics are some ways to enhance soft skills,” says Bhagat.
In India, nowadays, engineering colleges have started introducing soft skills as part of their curriculum, which greatly helps students to hone their soft skills.
Must-have soft skills that employers want
Companies look out for a mix of skills depending on the nature of work they do. Here is a list of the most desirable soft skills that HR heads of various companies look for:
1. Interpersonal skills such as communication (both verbal and written, including e-mail etiquette), persuasion, presentation, and active listening and learning
2. Good attitude with respect for the job at hand
3. Desire/passion to learn, share and be trained consistently
4. Able to confront reality. If possible, be a specialist in one field and generalist in others
5. Application of knowledge and concise understanding of “how things work”
6. Problem solving/analytical thinking and decision making
7. Honesty, integrity and impeccable ethics
8. Good time management and stress management skills when the pressure to perform is quite high
9. Flexibility to work with people from diverse backgrounds (team player)
10. Positive approach and a “can do” attitude
Practice makes perfect
“Self-practice is another way to improve soft skills,” says Choudhary.
Developing proficiency in soft skills is a lifelong process. “However, soft skills enhancement can and will only take place if there is appropriate level of self-awareness,” believes Dr Bandyopadhyay. “And, of course, practice is essential to sustain and continuously improve once a skill is acquired,” he adds.
Companies today invest a lot of time and money in building up their employees’ soft skills. “A general consensus is that these skills are built up over time and not just through classroom sessions. It is imperative to implement and practice the learning on your own,” adds Pathak.