"We hire for hard skills. We fire for soft skills."
-Rick Stephens, Boeing SVP for Human Resources and Administration
Most interview panels for engineers place a heavy emphasis on technical experience and ability. However, if employers want to retain their top technical talent, research shows they need to place just as much emphasis on soft skills and team fit.
In a 2020 SHRM Talent Conference, Talbots Director of Talent Acquisition and Employer Branding Susan Collins revealed that over 40% of the reason that new employees fail at their new job is due to soft skills issues. A survey published in Aviation Pros found this was just as true in the aviation and aerospace industry as 90% of the daily challenges reported in the workplace involved people issues, human interaction, and communication disconnects. Remote work is placing even more stress on soft skills, as infrequent interactions, glitchy audio on calls, and more slack and email conversations are an imperfect substitute for in-person communication.
We spoke with engineering managers at companies from Northrop Grumman, Tesla, Raytheon, and more to find out their best interview questions to evaluate candidates' soft skills. Below are eight industry experts’ go-to interview questions and the soft skills crucial enough to be put to the test.
Aerospace engineers are tasked with solving some of the most complex problems in aircraft, spacecraft, and unmanned vehicles. Asking a candidate to explain how they untangle engineering problems and resolve the different demands of a complex system is a helpful way to observe an individual’s problem-solving approach.
“The point is not to stump them or trick them,” says Patel, “Rather, I am evaluating how they approach the problem as well as their demeanor and communication skills. Are they rushing to the answer and therefore not listening to hints? Do they use a methodical approach, or are they unorganized in their thought process?” Good problem-solving techniques require a plethora of other soft skills as well, and this question helps bring several of them to light.
The idea is to have the candidate be scrappy and think on their feet about a subject they likely know nothing about. “The goal is to see how they come up with a solution,” says Baldwin, “if they create the desired item (gloves and not mittens) and also how many supplies they require.”
While engineering is an extremely technical job, it's also a highly creative one. Engineers often have to come up with ingenious alternatives (and then execute them) when solving a particular design problem.
Handling customers and stakeholders, whether they are internal or external, is an unavoidable part of every engineer’s role. Asking a question that includes some adversity, such as a failing component and a short deadline, is a great way to expose how people manage key relationships throughout your organization.
“I think one person might say ‘I’m going to work all weekend to solve the problem’ but there is no guarantee that you will be able to solve it,” says Lachenmyer, “You’re trying to gauge whether they understand business relationships and how you shape the narrative is important.” Cross-collaborating with other departments, staying aligned with overarching business goals, and building strong relationships with customers are all a fundamental part of doing a good engineering job.
In order to succeed on the team, a hardware engineer must be able to juggle multiple things at once while also knowing what to prioritize and what to set aside. It takes a certain level of organization to stay afloat when tasks are constantly being thrown in their direction. Getting a sense of how the candidate organizes their email inbox reveals how they may operate as a team member as a whole.
“From their answer, I can gauge how busy they are, perhaps how important they are in their organizations, how well they will be able to manage an overload of info when 200 emails hit their inbox each day, and what their mechanisms are to prioritize, constantly reprioritize, and organize/archive,” says Wei, “It also offers me a glimpse of their communication style.” This is one question that gives a lot of bang for your buck.
This question helps a hiring manager understand a couple of things: how the candidate defines failure (and success) and how humble they are. If an individual is self-aware enough to know their own shortcomings, they are more likely to not get in their own way once they’re hired.
These insights are directly related to the individual’s coachability potential. “If someone has never failed, it usually means they aren't driven enough to take big risks, they aren't humble enough to reflect, or they blame their own failures on others,” says Chung. “None are good in a startup.”
How an individual defines good leadership often reflects the way he or she leads (or aspires to lead). Whether you are specifically looking for someone who can lead an engineering team or not, identifying leadership potential early on can lay out a career path for a junior engineer that will cut back on future recruiting needs.
Based on the answer, the hiring manager can assess how a candidate will influence their future engineering work environment and overall organizational culture. “I’m specifically looking to see if the person is a strong communicator, able to take the right steps even in the most difficult situations, and can lead by example,” says Shah.
On the surface, this question seems like it’s assessing problem-solving abilities, and while there is some element of that, the main purpose of the posed scenario is to see who the candidate relies on to fix the problem. “My goal is finding out who they talk to, if they talk to anyone, or if they do it all alone,” says Crabtree.
To be as effective and efficient as possible, engineers must know how to work well together and have a team mentality. It’s easier for some to take on a project and do things on their own, but those who bring in other people as early as possible—especially if there are questions—are more primed for success.
The best aerospace engineering hires are passionate about engineering, both inside and outside of work. They are constantly learning on their own due to their innate interest in the field. This question helps hiring managers uncover the candidate’s level of investment in engineering, among a variety of things.
“It gives me information about the candidate’s learning skills, creativity, drive, energy, and passion,” says Martin, “It also tells me whether or not an individual is enjoying their engineering role and their attitude towards challenging projects.” Genuine passion cannot be manufactured—candidates either have it or they don’t.
If you want to hire engineers who perform better and retain longer, adding a robust slate of soft skills questions into your interview process will pay off. Since these questions don’t have definitive answers, it’s important to consider the values and characteristics that you want out of your future team, and to spend the time defining what answers would exemplify the values you desire.
At Cluster, team fit, manager fit and career fit are considerations we evaluate before matching employers with great talent. If you’re looking to grow your team, we can help you expedite your hiring process with interview-ready candidates who fit more than just your technical profile.
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