The Importance of Communication Skills for the Modern Engineer

By Graham Ballinger

When you think of engineering, what comes to mind? If you are an outsider to the major, you probably think of the stereotypical, overworked student whose work consists of nothing but endless calculations. I doubt many of us would attribute writing and public speaking to the average engineer’s career.  We assume engineers leave that stuff to the humanities students.

Although the “overworked student” stereotype is still accurate, what most people don’t realize is just how prominent and vital communication skills have become in the field of engineering. We can define “communication skills,” as anything that has to do with communication. This broad definition includes writing, speaking and listening skills. Studies have shown that most graduates felt they had gained analytical and problem-solving skills, subject-specific knowledge and improved decision-making abilities through their engineering degrees. Much fewer felt that their communication skills had improved due to their engineering education.  [1]

So why should engineers want to hone their communication skills? One big reason that should catch student’s attention is that it is a valuable career enhancer. Employers want engineers with strong communication skills. They assume most people who graduate with an engineering degree have the technical expertise to do their jobs; what employers are looking for in a candidate is the ability to communicate their findings with others in a productive, efficient manner. In today’s world, it is essential for an engineer to possess strong communication skills; it is the biggest determiner of success in the modern engineer’s professional career. [1]

Aside from impressing their employers and being hired, engineers need to use communication skills every day. Imagine you’re an engineer working in a 4-person team on an assignment. Each team member has important tasks, and everyone’s contributions are crucial to the success of your assignment. What if one of the workers lacks communication skills? They don’t listen well. They don’t contribute to group discussions on how to move the project forward. Their written reports are unclear and unorganized. Instead of making progress, you’re going to be struggling to decipher their work and incorporate their findings into the overall project. Valuable time, resources, and energy will be wasted, and the finished assignment will likely be lackluster. The team never reaches its full potential, all because somebody didn’t bother to develop decent communication skills. Now, obviously that is an extreme hypothetical situation regarded someone with poor communication skills. However, the overall point is clear: a lack of communication skills in today’s engineer leads to inefficiency, wasted effort, mistrust and resentment between co-workers. Not many people would want to hire or work with someone like that.

So what can engineering students today do to work on this problem? Thankfully, in the last decade or so, Ohio State, along with other major universities, has taken notice of the importance of teaching communication skills to their students. For example, Professor Mary Faure integrated an interesting twist into her ENGR 2367 class by developing a collaborative education model with representatives of two central Ohio-based companies. Essentially, the companies present students with a real-world engineering problem. Students quickly had to learn enough about the subject to start developing their own solutions. They worked with real professional engineers to come up with solutions, simultaneously honing their communication skills by attacking a real-world work situation.

“Today’s engineering students need engaging, contextually-positioned technical communications, project management, entrepreneurial thinking, and teamwork instruction and practice in order to perform well in advanced discipline-specific engineering classes, internships, capstone, and in their entry level engineering positions,” said Mary Faure, “This project was designed to provide important skill-building through authentic, hands-on experience, which today’s students crave . . . it gives students a unique experience without adding credit hours to their curriculum or costs to college expenses.”  Faure’s project introduced an exciting way to incorporate the teaching of communication skills into an already-crowded engineering curriculum.

An obstacle course where each group competes to determine whose robot is the best


Dr. Kathy Harper, a professor who teaches in the Fundamentals of Engineering Honors (FEH) program, has also taken notice of the need to incorporate communication skills into the engineering curriculum. She is part of a team that organizes a Robotics competition each year for first-year students in the FEH program. Her students typically write some sort of report, memo, or abstract at least once a week.

“We really emphasize technical communication and writing . . .The students get very good at it as the course goes on,” says Harper, “We’ve taken time away from lab to talk to students about basic writing and grammatical skills. We teach them to write specific details, instead of writing vaguely.”

At the end of the course, the students write a technical report on their final project. This obviously involves writing some things individually, but also writing some things as a group, a skill Dr. Harper thinks is equally important.

“The students really have to communicate their findings with each other effectively,” says Harper. “It’s hard to take something 4 people have worked on, and put it together so it seems like it has the same voice.”

Dr. Harper says students are continually amazed by how much documentation goes into robot building project. They document the process that went into designing the robot, whether it was successful or not and what would they do next.  They also have to show their budget, how much time they worked on the robot.

“These details are all things the people who will be paying these students to do these jobs in the future will want to know.  ‘How did your ideas evolve, why did you decide to do what you did, why should we like this, why should we give you more money to continue the project…Why did it cost so much to make this?’” Dr. Harper explains. “The students have to say, ‘well here are the people hours we put into it, here are the materials we put into it, here’s the amount of time we used in the test facility.’ All these things have to be communicated.”

Each group’s robot is unique and built from scratch


The robot competition aims to instill these communication skills in their students, so they can be better prepared for their careers after graduation. Some groups even get a first-hand experience into just how important these skills when working on the project.

According to Dr. Harper, “90% of the time, when you see a team that is having issues, most of those issues can be solved with better communication.”

So how can you make sure your communication skills continue to improve in college? Dr. Harper has a simple solution.

“Any skill that’s worth learning requires practice. You don’t watch a lot of football games, then go in and feel like you could be the quarterback and win the Super Bowl. Just because you’ve watched it a lot, you understand the mechanics of it and you understand the rules of the game, doesn’t mean that you know how to play it,” explains Harper. “Whenever you’re put in a place where it’s time to refine skills, you have to be ready to practice; you have to be ready to learn new things. You have to be ready to take the feedback.”