Soft skills lead to career success for STEM students

Recently, the National Association of Colleges and Employers convened a STEM Roundtable meeting in Philadelphia next to the University of Pennsylvania. Attended by Universities that produce graduates in fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and the employers that seek to hire them, the discussions centered around how to prepare students for STEM careers, engage them with employment opportunities and effective recruiting practices for companies.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently reported that the economy gained 2.1 million jobs in 2017. Fall 2017 recruiting of students attending universities that graduate a majority of their students in STEM-related fields was the most active they have seen in the last 15 years. On campus recruiting at career fairs at Michigan Tech have grown 117 percent since 2009 and 28 percent in the last five years. Early indicators are these trends will continue to grow in 2018.

Career Centers at universities producing STEM graduates are tasked with helping students choose a field of study that fits their interests, help them effectively communicate the skills and experiences applying these skills to employer through resumes and interviews, and creating dynamic events that connect students with the employers seeking their skills. University Career Centers are struggling to keep up with the demands from students and the corporate partners they serve as they seek.

The primary traditional recruiting tool is career fairs. These large one-day events are held on campus twice annually at smaller schools. Michigan Tech hosts on average of 340 recruiting organizations in the fall (1,200 recruiters) and 220 organizations in the spring (800 recruiters). Companies are catalyzing these efforts using informal events on campus focused on creating relationships with students.

First of America sponsors Hackathons (computer science coding competitions), mock interviews to help students develop their interview skills, and Tech Talks, where students learn about new technology being used in industry.

Durtex reaches out to students in their first year of college, helping them identify skills they have already acquired and identifying their value. Durtex begins building a relationship with each student, contacting them several times each year with information about their company and new employment opportunities with them as interns or co-ops. Their goals are branding their company, helping students develop the skills Durtex seek, and building a relationship of trust with them.

Universities are busy building the soft skills package in each STEM student. The value of the technical knowledge STEM students possess can only be realized by an employer if they can apply it and communicate it.

Campus communicates help develop these needed soft skills in a variety of ways. Villanova provides a four-year soft-skills development class that all students are required to take. Georgia Tech conducts an intellectual property course where students learn how to develop their innovations and apply for a patent to gain the legal rights to the innovation, learning to communicate their innovaitons.

The degree a student successfully develops these soft skills with determine the value a recruiting company will place on a student’s skills, measure by the job-offer salary.

Michigan Tech will host recruiters from innovative car maker Tesla and international IT giant Tata Consulting Services at the Feb. 21 Spring Career Fair, the first visit to our campus for both. This is yet another indicator of the increasingly torrid pace that is engulfing the recruitment of our STEM students.

Managing the engagement of our students with recruiters that seek STEM talent will continue to be a challenge, surpassed only by the development of soft skills each student needs to possess to achieve a successful STEM career.

Steve Patchin, Ph.D., is the director of Career Services for Michigan Technological University.