When Engineers Must Relate to Human Beings

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Once upon a time, when an engineer was promoted into management, it usually meant he was the least capable technical person in his group.

Not anymore. Today, even the brightest engineers look to join the ranks of management in search of new career challenges and bigger paychecks.

Few engineers, though, have the people skills necessary to move directly into a management job.


“Engineers are trained to think linearly and logically and are often rewarded for going off into a corner and struggling with a design,” said Bill Goodin, a continuing education specialist who oversees the Engineering and Management Program at UCLA Extension. “When all of a sudden they are promoted and asked to manage people, not all of those skills are particularly helpful.”

To be sure, the skills required to succeed in engineering and management overlap in some respects. Both require the ability to solve problems and a practical point of view.

But there are major differences. And the biggest one has to do with human relations skills.

“Most engineers are introverts,” said Herb Kimbler, a mechanical engineer who became a management professor at Loyola Marymount University and now teaches two classes for UCLA Extension. “We pick engineering so we can work alone on inanimate objects that don’t talk back.”

In Kimbler’s UCLA classroom, students role-play to practice dealing with the human side of work. In one scenario, a manager is faced with an employee who cries after receiving a poor performance review. In another, she must confront a staff member who is not doing a fair share of the group’s work.

In addition to polishing their people skills, engineers who want to be managers will need to know about accounting, project management and budgeting.


“You need to have some financial acumen,” said Arnold Ruskin, an engineer who teaches project management courses through the extension programs at UCLA and Caltech. “You need to understand the relationship of your product line to the economy as a whole.”

A master’s degree in business administration would be overkill for engineers who aspire to be managers, engineering executives agree. Individual classes offered by university extension programs or at private training companies will suffice.

But continuing independent study also is important. Managers and engineers who aspire to management should read magazines such as Harvard Business Review and industry publications such as Aviation Week that discuss management issues, said Paul Willis, a leader of the Engineering Management Society at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a nationwide group.

Aspiring managers also can polish their people skills by finding a mentor at work, said Willis, a group supervisor at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Mentors can offer advice and widen an engineer’s exposure to the tasks performed by managers, he said.

Karen Kaplan covers technology and careers. She can be reached via e-mail at Karen.Kaplan@