What’s in a Name?

08 Dec 2020 10:16 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

by Sara Vick

The words we use to name things matter. My favorite example of this is the fancy and expensive seafood: Chilean sea bass. You see, Chilean sea bass don’t come from Chile and they aren’t even bass. Rather, the name was invented by an American fish merchant to make Patagonian toothfish more marketable. The names we use matter.

This is equally as important in engineering management as it is in fish merchandising. Consider the terms “soft skills” and “entrepreneurial skills”. Do they refer to the same skillset? If not, which skillset is more important for engineers to have? Would someone with a background in business rather than engineering agree? How do the different generations interpret the two terms? Are Baby Boomer hiring managers in search of applicants based on one term, while those applicants are marketing themselves as possessing the other term? 

Based on results from a [preliminary survey done on the topic in 2018], this difference in terminology to describe what is essential the same group of skills – things like teamwork, systems thinking, responsibility, and strategic orientation – does create a divide between older generations and younger, between engineers and non-engineers, between managers and non-managers. For example, when asked which type of skill was more important for engineers to have, engineers claimed soft skills were more important while non-engineers said entrepreneurial skills were more important. Does that mean engineers don’t see the value of skills like negotiation, decision making, and financial management—skills more traditionally labeled as entrepreneurial?

Branding is important. Just as it took a radical renaming to elevate the lowly Patagonian toothfish to the highest of Michelin tables, could changing the terminology used to describe the skills encompassed by “soft skills” and “entrepreneurial skills” open the door to dialog on the value of these skills to engineers?

About the Author

Sara Vick is an Industrial and Systems Engineering Ph.D. student at Mississippi State University where her research focuses on human expression through virtual mediums like video games. She was inspired to become an engineer by the HGTV show Mission: Organization and her life goal is the frustratingly vague “to help people by making the world better”.

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