The Top Soft Skills To Look For When Recruiting Engineers


April 25, 2023


180 Engineering

As our world continues to evolve, the importance of evaluating soft skills during the interview process is becoming increasingly important. While hard (technical) skills are of course critical to the success of an engineer, soft (non-technical) skills impact any employee’s ability to manage all aspects of a job, including:

  • Communicating both in person and online with team members, managers, and clients;
  • Working collaboratively on a team;
  • Effectively managing their workload;
  • Solving day-to-day problems through adaptability, creativity, and perseverance; and
  • Taking responsibility and being accountable.

Soft skills have always impacted job performance but, in the past, there was an expectation that candidates would bring sufficient soft skills to their new roles and would further develop or shape those skills to fit within a company’s culture.

However, as we’ve all shifted to living a large portion of our lives online, some essential soft skills, such as in-person communication, are being degraded. As well, candidates and employees have more power and options than ever, particularly in the engineering field, where job opportunities are plentiful and unemployment levels are low. Today’s workers are seeking a good work/life balance and companies that value them. To attract and retain talent, it’s important to find candidates who will be a good fit for the company’s culture, without an expectation that the candidates will change or adapt to conform. And, finally, the way that engineers do their jobs is shifting. The importance of required skills needs to be reassessed to make sure that those skills are assigned an appropriate value in today’s workplace.

Despite the importance of soft skills, it can be difficult to identify and assess those skills during the interview process. They can’t be quantified in the same way as technical skills. A savvy interviewer, thoughtfully considered interview questions, and a carefully crafted behavioral interview are all needed in order to accurately assess a candidate’s soft skills.

What Are Soft Skills?

Soft skills are difficult to define. The Indeed editorial team sums up soft skills as “a set of personality traits formed by habits.” To be more specific, many soft skills can be grouped together as people skills since they impact how people interact with each other, including social skills and communication skills such as empathy, adaptability, conflict management, teamwork, and leadership. Other soft skills shape the way we approach our daily tasks including time management, decision-making, critical thinking, and resourcefulness.

Emotional intelligence is critical to well-developed soft skills. As Sophia Bernazzani explains, soft skills require situational awareness because their use is dependent on intangible factors. Those intangible factors usually involve concern for others and an understanding of how our actions impact those around us, as even skills like time management and resourcefulness can ultimately affect others.

While some soft skills are inherent personality traits that are difficult to teach (like empathy and adaptability), they can be developed with practice. Those just entering the job market will likely have less-developed soft skills than mid-career professionals. Nevertheless, since soft skills are critical to job performance, they should be assessed during the hiring process.

The Difficulty Of Assessing Soft Skills

Traditional hiring processes make it difficult to determine and assess a candidate’s soft skills. A terrific blog post at Hire Success points out that there are several roadblocks to assessing soft skills:

  • Candidates with highly-developed soft skills may be screened out by your ATS;
  • Resumes are extremely concise, often highly edited, and may be embellished;
  • Candidates often practice or are coached for interviews and will bring the answers they think that you want to hear;
  • Standard interview questions that address soft skills are often rote and superficial, allowing candidates to prepare “perfected” answers in advance; and
  • Most soft skills aren’t easily quantifiable.

Because of the importance of soft skills, adapting your hiring processes to identify and assess soft skills is critical.

Using Behavioral Interviews To Assess Soft Skills

A journal article by Malar Hirudayaraj et. al. lists 26 soft skills that employers value in engineering candidates and employees. And, indeed, all soft skills are valuable and can contribute to success in the workplace. However, it goes without saying that certain skills should be prioritized in the interview process.

Once you decide which skills are most important for the role and your company, the best way to assess those skills is with a behavioral interview.

Behavioral interviews ask candidates to delve into their past work experience and provide concrete examples of how they handled specific situations. Thoughtful questions posed by a skilled interviewer can reveal a candidate’s soft skill proficiency and can provide strong indicators of how a candidate will perform in similar situations in the future.

For behavioral interviews to be most effective, an excellent piece by Marcin Olichwirowicz advises that interviewers:

  • Build their own communication knowledge by paying attention to effective communicators, research, and practice;
  • Hold real conversations with candidates, letting the discussion find its natural pace, instead of sticking to a scripted Q&A;
  • Act like researchers, not investigators by focusing on the candidate and not on their answers;
  • Improvise with role-play when a candidate is having difficulty opening up;
  • Hone their active listening skills, being careful not to talk too much nor to passively listen; and
  • Always provide feedback.

While the interview process for engineers often revolves around technical assessments, well-developed behavioral interviews are critical for assessing the soft skills that your organization considers essential.

The Top Soft Skills In Engineering Candidates

Every organization and role is different and may require very specific soft skills. For example, if you have a global team working remotely, your candidates need to be able to collaborate effectively and respectfully with culturally-diverse colleagues. That said, there are a few key soft skills that are critical to the success of virtually every engineer.

Communication And Interpersonal Skills

Communication skills are critical to success in both one’s personal life and in the workplace. In today’s world, that means competency in both written and verbal communication, online and in person. But engineers have an additional level of complexity when it comes to communication in the workplace: mastering not just the technical language required by the job but learning how to “translate” that jargon for clients, customers, and your company’s non-technical employees.

While engineers need to communicate one-on-one with team members, management, and clients, they also need to contribute to meetings, create and handle presentations, create technical documents and manuals, and document their work processes.

Strong interpersonal skills are a critical component of effective communication. As we communicate with others, we need to be adept at nonverbal communication cues, conflict resolution, teamwork, empathy, and active listening.

Potential Interview Questions For Assessing Communication And Interpersonal Skills

  1. Tell me about a time when someone on your team disregarded your ideas.
  2. Describe a situation where you had to explain something to a frustrated client. How did you handle this situation?
  3. How would you explain a complex technical problem to someone who doesn’t have the technical expertise to understand your project?

Problem-Solving And Critical-Thinking Skills

Every engineer needs effective problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Not only is engineering a solutions-oriented job but there will be technical problems, pressing deadlines, and interpersonal issues to deal with on a daily basis. The ability to identify, assess, and analyze problems, find creative solutions, weigh risks, organize a plan of action, and effectively implement the best solution will not just help an engineer do their job but also keep your company running efficiently.

Potential Interview Questions For Assessing Problem-Solving And Critical-Thinking Skills

  1. Tell me about a time you made a mistake at work and the steps you took to resolve that mistake.
  2. Can you describe a time when you had to solve an issue but you didn’t have the resources that you needed?
  3. Describe a time when your team was not able to meet a consensus and how you contributed to a solution.

Organizational Skills

Engineering requires a precise and detail-oriented mindset not only in regard to the technical aspects of the job but also in the way that tasks are accomplished. Organizational skills are important to tracking workflow, juggling competing priorities, planning and completing projects, staying on deadline, and managing communications such as meetings, presentations, and email replies. An engineer with strong organizational skills will be able to optimize their workflow and have a positive impact on your bottom line.

Potential Interview Questions For Assessing Organizational Skills

  1. How do you approach a complicated problem or project?
  2. How do you stay organized when you’re juggling a few different tasks and projects?
  3. Which organizational tools do you use?

Leadership Skills

Even for entry-level engineers, leadership skills are crucial. Leadership is different from management. As Michael Boyle points out in a piece at Harvard Business School Online, leadership is a skill that’s “people-focused and involves developing ideas” whereas management is a role that’s focused on “existing processes rather than innovation and encourages people to adhere to existing structures and systems.”

Leadership is about inspiring others to pull together in order to achieve the best possible result. In a field where innovation is paramount, leadership is critical for all employees. As well, leadership skills are key for people to take accountability for themselves and have a sense of ownership over the projects they contribute to.

Potential Interview Questions For Assessing Leadership Skills

  1. How do you help to keep your team motivated?
  2. How do you measure your own performance at work?
  3. Tell us about a time you acted as a mentor.