Why Engineers Need To Develop T-Shaped Skills

Written By: Maria Doyle
  • 12/2/2014

What are the most crucial skills an engineer needs? Most people, when asked this question, may say that mathematical proficiency and technological expertise are most important.

And they are right, to a degree.

In the past, having a straightforward set of technical skills was almost all it took to have a successful, stable career in the big-four engineering disciplines (civil, mechanical, industrial, and electrical). But as the demand for engineers has grown (the labor market is expected to increase by 11 percent over the next 10 years), so have the expectations of employers hiring for these positions. Engineers must now have T-shaped skills.

What is a T-shaped skill?

The idea of T-shaped skills was first mentioned by David Guest in a 1991 article discussing the future of computer jobs, and then championed by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO design firm, as an approach to hiring the right talent in order to build interdisciplinary teams that can come together to create new ideas.

Essentially, the T-shaped concept is a metaphor for the depth and breadth that an individual has in their skills. The vertical bar on the ‘T’ represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar represents a breadth of skills and the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.

For engineers, this means not only possessing deep, technical skills, but also having broader attributes—such as empathy, communication skills, team building, and the ability to collaborate—or “soft skills”.

For future engineers, developing T-shaped skills could make all the difference in attaining a successful career following graduation.

“Many companies, including IBM, are anxious to recruit T-shaped engineering students, expecting them to solve problems in their technical fields within the context of the entire organization,” says Bob Dunn, the managing director for the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Nano Science and Technology. “These students will be in high demand when they graduate and apply for jobs.”

In addition to IDEO and IBM, companies such as GE, Proctor & Gamble, and Nike all embrace the idea of hiring engineers with T-shaped skills, and training their engineers to have these skills as well.

IBM has invested extensively in the T-shaped model and hosts an annual T-Summit together with Michigan State University. “Projects teams at IBM often span multiple disciplines, sectors, and cultures,” Jim Spohrer, director of global university programs at IBM, explains. “And so we need T-shaped graduates who can work well together to co-create solutions for a smarter planet.”

Countries outside the United States are also trying to train engineers in T-shaped skills. Researchers in China have written a paper that calls for sweeping structural and cultural changes in engineering education, including a shift from disciplinary thinking to interdisciplinary approaches and increased development of teaming skills as a means for China to stay competitive and produce better engineers.

“The growing gap between engineering practice, education, and research is a cause for concern,” the paper says. “One of the keys to equip qualified engineering students is to help them learn about engineering in context; giving adequate opportunities for both deepening and widening their knowledge base and for learning all the necessary skills.”

Making engineering education more T-shaped

The industry is moving towards a T-shaped model, but universities are slow to do the same with their curriculums. “Most American colleges and universities educate engineers to become the equivalent of bricklayers, rather than cathedral builders,” explains Marshall Lih, who served as director of the National Science Foundation’s division of engineering education.

But the universities who are actively working to give their engineering students the competitive edge by creating more integrated engineering courses are models for how things can be done. Lehigh University, for example, has a four-year honors program in Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE). The program prepares students for leadership roles in industrial R&D, entrepreneurial initiatives, management consulting, high-tech ventures, innovative technology, and financial services.

Boston College has also created an engineering program that creates what is calls the ‘societal engineer’; an engineer who not only has T-shaped skills, but can appreciate how such a shape can advance society.

The Oregon Engineering and Technology Industry Council (ETIC) is another group working to increase T-shaped learning in Oregon’s universities. ETIC has a $29 million investment fund to support strategic initiatives in Oregon’s public universities and colleges, and it has started to give special priority to grant proposals that promote solutions to the T-shaped challenge.

“Companies hire people for core technical depth, but what most organizations then find is that they spend a fair amount of time and effort with recent graduates integrating them into teams, coaching them to be effective in what is rapidly becoming a more team-oriented environment,” Keith Brown, IBM’s director for strategic university and industry alliances and a board member of ETIC, explains.

“What we see is an opportunity in the educational system to give students experiences and opportunities where they can develop those skills as part of their academic achievement and come out of the universities better prepared,” he concludes.

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About the Author

Maria Doyle

Maria Doyle is an independent communications consultant in the Boston area. She helps high tech companies with their writing, especially making complex topics more easily understood. Some of the topics she enjoys writing about include engineering and design innovation, customer success stories, and other STEM-related topics. Maria loves the fact that the industry continues to change, which keeps things interesting.