Engineering Leadership Development program enhances students' interview skills

January 30, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When a majority of engineering students think about the skills necessary to receive a job offer upon graduation, they often default to the technical aspects of their degree. What many don’t realize is the skills that land them a second interview or their official offer letter are those that enhance their nontechnical abilities — skills such as individual, team and organizational leadership; global competencies and multicultural awareness; and communication and project management.

The School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs’ world-renowned Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) program provides students with in-class and experiential learning opportunities to develop these career-enhancing skills.

Mike Erdman, Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development, said companies seeking to hire engineers are attracted to Penn State engineering students due to the excellent technical education they receive.

“What many students miss is that to differentiate themselves, the nontechnical skills they learn while in school are essential. Employers consistently state the importance of skills such as communication, teamwork, project management and decision-making, all of which fall under this big umbrella term of leadership,” Erdman said. “This is why so many recruiters are asking for leadership. It’s easy for a recruiter to identify a basic understanding of your technical abilities through your GPA. It’s harder to identify the leadership abilities required to succeed in the real world.” 

Leading up to the College of Engineering’s Career Week each semester, ELD holds mock career fairs in its ENGR 408: Leadership Principles classes to help students prep for interviews with engineering company and firm representatives. As the course focuses on leadership concepts, principles and theories, it offers students a chance to hone their interviewing and communicating skills for the on-campus recruiting process.

Students in ENGR 408 also practice their leadership skills by working in a team of cross-discipline peers to complete an engineering project. Through this experience, students receive feedback and reflect on their leadership abilities. This self-awareness and reflection provides students with stories they identify during the on-campus recruiting process. The students are taught how to best discuss both the technical and nontechnical skills they learn through in-class learning, experiential learning, and internships and co-ops. 

“Companies consistently evaluate students on their abilities to work with and lead others. We found that many students had the skills employers were looking for, but lacked the ability to communicate it to employers in an effective way,” said Meg Handley, associate director of engineering leadership outreach.

Handley said ELD students spend the semester reflecting on their experiences and learning how to correctly communicate with potential employers.  

“The mock career fair gives them an opportunity to practice communicating them in a way that demonstrates they are developing and understanding the importance of the nontechnical skills to effectively transition to engineering work,” Handley said.

Companies that serve as industry sponsors and partners of the ELD program attend the mock career fair to interview students for potential internships and job openings. They also use the event as a way to provide feedback to students on how to potentially improve their interview skills.

James Gallagher, a senior chemical engineering and ELD minor student, said having the opportunity to put his interviewing skills into practice with ELD industry partners has been a great way to improve his techniques, gain easier access to large companies like Merck and Rockwell Automation, and discuss his leadership capabilities and competencies.

“The ELD minor has done a lot to develop my leadership skills and I wanted to put those skills to the test,” he said. “This [opportunity] also allows employers to ask me questions on leadership experiences I’ve had in the [ELD] minor, which they might not have done otherwise.” 

Patrick Duda, a senior mechanical engineering student completing the ELD minor, agreed. 

“The experiences provided by the ELD program are all I talk about in interviews with employers. They [the faculty] provided so many experiences relevant to what employers are looking for in entry-level engineers,” he said.

Duda used his experiences in ENGR 408 to begin developing his leadership skills. He continued to build upon these skills in additional courses within the minor, including ENGR 422: International Leadership of Engineering and Development. As part of his ENGR 422 course, he traveled to South Africa to work with a cross-cultural team on a smart farming application in May 2017. Upon his spring 2018 graduation, Duda will begin his engineering career with General Motors Co.

Anthony Aloisi, an engineering leadership and innovation management (ELIM) graduate student, agreed, saying the comfortable atmosphere of the ELD mock career fair helped him feel confident in his interviewing capabilities.

“I was able to speak with employers and demonstrate my skills,” he said. “I saw genuine interest in the ELD program from the employers that I talked to. I didn’t feel the added stress of standing out because they already had an invested interest in my skills.”

Aloisi said the mock career fairs have provided him with great opportunities to practice speaking about the added value of his engineering leadership and innovation management graduate degree with potential employers.

“Experience and practice is the key to being successful,” he said.

Upon completing his master of engineering in spring 2018, Aloisi will continue his work in engineering leadership development as a member of Siemen’s Engineering Leadership Development Program team.

Building off the success of the ELD minor, the ELIM graduate program seeks to create engineering leaders who are poised to lead teams and drive innovation within the corporate setting. Like the ELD program, ELIM works to build self-awareness of leadership abilities in its students and requires that they reflect on those abilities relative to their career aspirations and the engineering context.

The ELIM program focuses on leading and managing the innovation process, managing project management, and building cross-cultural competencies, while infusing business concepts throughout the curriculum. The learning goals of the program are designed to teach students how to communicate innovative engineering solutions with the business-side of engineering in mind. ELIM students are provided with similar experiential lessons as ELD minor students through enrollment in the ENGR 408 course and cross-cultural teaming courses. 

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Last Updated January 30, 2018