Helping STEM Students Build Soft Skills – Why They Are Vital

Dear Readers: In lieu of reading this post, you can view the embedded video (bottom of post).

Probably like you, I have some things that really get me charged up. One of my favorites involves helping STEM students to develop strong soft skills that will complement their technical expertise.

Soft Skills Are Vital

My passion for helping others with soft skills didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it’s been building and growing stronger for nearly 40 years.

As the post title alludes, I’m going to share with you why I think soft skills are so vital.

But I don’t expect you to simply accept my opinion as fact without any backing. To support my postion I want to share with you three personal career stories. 

Career Story #1: Engineering Intern at John Deere

Prior To College

I was one of those lucky students who picks a college path and sticks with it until graduation. I knew I wanted to be a mechanical engineer from the very start.Custom Bumper

Although our dad worked as an electrical engineer for a large electronics firm in town, we lived on a farm where I spent hours and hours in our shop repairing equipment and building things.

It was the hands-on nature of that work in the farm shop that prompted me to pursue mechanical engineering at Iowa State University.

Looking back though, my farm work didn’t teach me much about soft skills. How could it? I was working alone most of the time, and honestly, I liked it that way.

It was a summer internship with John Deere in 1979 where my eyes were opened wide to the need for, and the power of, soft skills.

Advice From an Astute Manager

During that summer of ’79, I had the good fortune to be assigned to a very sharp manager who shared something that I’ve never forgotten. During one of our casual conversations, he said to me,

Don, something you should understand is that engineering is roughly 80% communications and 20% technical.

I didn’t fully understand his comment at the time, but it became clear soon enough.

He was saying that to be successful as an engineer, you need the technical knowledge that your classes provide, but to leverage that knowledge and to be successful in the workplace you need to know how to converse effectively, how to get along with people, how to work with others on a team, how to present your ideas…..and on and on.

As I’ve learned since, this 80/20 ratio isn’t exclusive to engineering. The need for strong soft skills is true in all disciplines, and in life in general. As a young kid in college though, these ideas simply hadn’t occurred to me.

Presenting To Factory Managers

Another experience during that summer opened my eyes wide to the specific need for an engineer to know how to confidently present ideas to others.

The experience involved John Deere’s requirement that interns give a short summary presentation of their projects at the end of their three-month work sessions. For me, this meant presenting to a group of top managers at the factory where I worked.

Similar to my manager’s advice, this is an experience that’s burned into my memory. If you can picture what follows, then you’ll understand why.Internship

  • First, picture a young, somewhat shy farm kid who had never done any public speaking.
  • Next, picture an audience made up of experienced, top managers at a diesel engine factory.
  • Finally, picture an overhead projector, hand-drawn overhead slides, and that same shy, quiet kid standing at the front of a conference room nervously talking about his summer project.

It was one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had.

Bullets of sweat were streaming down my forehead as I summarized the project for the managers. My voice was quivering and there was no hiding that I was way out of my comfort zone. It wasn’t a long presentation, but the 10 minutes felt like hours.

I was so relieved when it was over. I left the room that day with a brand new appreciation for the meaning of the words “stage fright”, but also with a realization that I had a lot of work to do on my presentation skills.

In fact, that presentation was the catalyst that prompted me to join Toastmasters. You may already know that Toastmasters is a worldwide organization, dedicated to helping its members build their public speaking skills. It turned out to be a godsend for me.

Career Story #2: Engineering Recruiter

Independent External Recruiter

Early in 1995, after two years as an MBA student, and during a time where I was not with John Deere, I became a solopreneur by opening an engineering recruiting firm near Madison, Wisconsin.STG3G&ARecruiting

As an independent contract recruiter, my role was to help midwest manufacturers find and hire, early and mid-career engineers. Payment was made if and only if a client company hired a candidate that I had submitted to them.

Contract recruiting was a completely new experience, but I warmed up to it quickly. What I found most enjoyable was the daily interaction, mostly by phone and snail mail, with the engineering candidates who were searching for new jobs.

What I quickly learned was that most engineers had limited experience with the soft side of the job search and career transition process. This included everything from resume creation, to interview prep, to researching possible employers, and much, much more.

Since my goal was to get candidates hired so I could get paid, it made sense for me to help my engineering candidates prepare in whatever ways were necessary. This prompted me to learn all I could about the key steps of the hiring process and to build an understanding of what companies were looking for when hiring engineers.

Although I ultimately recruited myself back to John Deere in mid-1997, that two and a half year period of recruiting independently was a great experience. It introduced me to a whole new set of soft skills that engineers need to have in their career development toolboxes.

John Deere Corporate Recruiter

After returning to John Deere in 1997, I ended up adding another 12 years to my career there, for a total of 25 before leaving for the final time in 2010.

During those last 12 years, I spent nearly a year and a half in John Deere’s Corporate Staffing group as an Engineering Project Leader. For all practical purposes, the role as a Project Leader was that of an internal engineering recruiter. My job was to understand the needs of unit engineering managers and find top candidates for them to hire.

One added element of the Corporate Staffing role was to work with the career centers at eight to ten engineering colleges around the country. This involved representing John Deere at college career fairs and interviewing students who were seeking internships and full-time positions.

Similar to the role as an independent contract recruiter, being a liaison with the engineering colleges provided exposure to another whole side of the engineering recruiting process. In this case, it was the one dedicated to college students.

Much like the mid-career engineers I recruited, I learned that most engineering students also had a limited understanding of the job search process and of the importance of related soft skills.

Career Story #3: Father of Three Sons

Not so different than the other two roles as an intern and a recruiter, this one has also been a “learn as I go” proposition. However, it ranks as much more challenging than the others, but much more satisfying too.BoysReduced

There are some parenting stories in other spots in the Parent’s GUIDE, but suffice it to say that if you’re a parent, our thinking is probably very similar. I would bet that we both want our kids to be kind to others, find work and people they can love, and become self-sufficient, contributing members of society. At least those have always been some of my goals for our boys.

My Hope For You…and for Me

Hopefully, this peek into a bit of my past has helped you to understand why I have such a passion for this topic, but more importantly, why I believe soft skills are so vital.

The aim for the eight strategies that I share in the Parent’s GUIDE is that they will help us both in our continuing journeys to guide our kids towards happy and successful lives.


 If desired, you can view this entire post in the video below:

Questions: How would you characterize the importance of soft skills for STEM students? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Note: This post is one of the early chapters in the free PARENT’S GUIDE TO HELPING STEM STUDENTS BUILD OUTSTANDING SOFT SKILLS. On THIS PAGE, you can learn more about the GUIDE, watch a short summary video and request a FREE downloadable PDF copy.

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