Skills and competencies

Assessment centres: the key competences graduate engineers must prove they possess

25 Jan 2023, 13:38

HR specialist Jane Lees reveals which skills recruiters test for at engineering assessment centres and how to demonstrate them.

Assessment centre

Engineers must be able to understand and build relationships with their customers, suppliers, teams, managers and other key stakeholders.

What are recruiters thinking when they observe your behaviour or interview you at an assessment centre? Answer: as well as checking your academic record they are considering the skills and personal qualities you will need to be a success at their organisation, and trying to judge whether you possess them.

Different organisations will have slightly different requirements but most engineering recruiters are broadly looking for the same things. Knowing what these are and how you’ll be assessed on them will help you get ahead. Jane Lees, a human resourcing specialist at National Grid, outlines eight frequently sought skills.

Communication skills

Communication skills cover written and verbal abilities, and interpersonal skills. It’s about how you interact with others, what media you use for what message, and whether the message you are trying to convey is what’s actually coming across. In your working life you’ll have to deal with many different people at different levels of seniority, of different nationalities and quite possibly based in different countries with different time zones so it’s important you can adapt your style of communication if necessary.

Recruiters will analyse your communication skills in various ways at assessment centres, for example by asking you to give a presentation, describe a piece of visual information such as a plan or complete a group exercise. In group tasks, you may find that other candidates have been given different information from you and that you need to negotiate and decide among yourselves which aspects are most important.

Recruiters will be impressed by candidates who appreciate and respect each other while still getting the task done, make sure everyone gets their say and, if they challenge other group members, do it in an appropriate way.

Leadership potential

Assessors for many graduate schemes will be interested in whether you have an aptitude for leadership. Can you see the bigger picture or do you get bogged down in detail? It’s important to be able to identify the most important facts and communicate these clearly, concisely and enthusiastically to a team. Being organised and aware of time constraints and remaining courteous and respectful in stressful situations are also important leadership qualities.

Recruiters will be impressed by candidates who can take responsibility if necessary for planning how to progress with a task and deciding who will do what, but tread carefully. Group exercises are a key tool for assessing your leadership potential but this doesn’t mean that you should try to take charge of your group and attempt to lead it from start to finish. A would-be leader trying to bully a team in the wrong direction will be viewed negatively. However, it’s important to speak out when you have something productive to say, or to challenge a view that you think is incorrect. It’s also good to check that others in the group are in agreement with decisions and see whether they have anything to add.

Teamworking ability

Teamwork is a huge part of working life for an engineer, so recruiters are looking for candidates who realise that they can achieve more as part of a team than as individuals and focus on working towards common goals. Employers are impressed by graduates who actively participate; are open, honest and respectful; and who support others: for example listening to what they have to say, building their confidence and encouraging quieter team mates. All these things will be noted in candidates’ behaviour towards each other.

Problem-solving skills

Problem-solving abilities are clearly needed for working on long-term technical projects but they are also necessary to deal with unforeseeable issues needing immediate attention on a day-to-day basis – and for dealing with other people and their behaviour.

A crucial aspect of problem solving is the ability to extract the key facts from a mass of information and keep them to hand in a quickly assessable format. At assessment centres you may be given a task involving a lot of information so it’s wise to note down what you think are the most important points in a fashion that works for you – perhaps as a chart or flow diagram. This will make it much easier for you to make your points in a group discussion and your notes may be collected and analysed afterwards by the assessors. This can count in your favour if you’ve been on the right tracks but unable to get your points across to other team members. You may also be asked in an interview to think of an example of a problem you have solved, describing how you tackled it, what the outcome was and what you learned from the experience.

Planning skills

At work, you may have to plan your own day-to-day tasks and those of others, as well as organising longer-term projects. Successful engineers can use well laid-out plans as a tool to influence others, inspiring confidence and making it easier to communicate what will happen and identify any problems. How good are you at breaking down tasks, monitoring progress and building in contingency plans? You may be asked at interview how you went about planning a project or event – for example a university ball, sporting event, academic assignment or DIY project – looking at what you did right and what you learned from it.

Motivation and enthusiasm

Enthusiasm is important in your work with others. To engage and lead a team and to work well with customers, it’s a big help to be keen about the task in hand – you need to believe in something yourself to be able to sell it to others. Help yourself out by doing your homework on the companies you are applying to. What do they do, where are they located and are the roles they are offering really what you want? The last thing recruiters want is to hire graduates who don’t really want to work there.

Once you’ve established that you’re keen about a position, let this show if you’re invited to an interview or assessment centre, even if you’re feeling nervous. In group exercises, showing enthusiasm can help bring the team together and lead it forward. In interviews, make sure you mention any projects, roles or interests you are particularly passionate about, even if they aren’t directly related to the position, whether it’s restoring an old car or volunteering with a charity.

Adaptability and flexibility

For some engineering positions you’ll be expected to be flexible geographically, heading off to different sites and offices around the country or abroad on a long-term or short-term basis. Again, doing your homework when you apply will help. Some graduate schemes, for example, will expect you to rotate through different placements across the country and recruiters will be hoping that you are enthusiastic about this. Other positions require less travel but employers will still be keen to see a flexible mindset to deal with new methods and processes, enthusiasm for doing new things and willingness to take on tasks or roles that may not have had their structure mapped out for you.

In group exercises, assessors may throw in challenges to see how you adapt, for example waiting till the task is well under way, then saying that the customer has changed its mind about what it wants.

The ability to build relationships

Engineers must be able to understand and build relationships with their customers, suppliers, teams, managers and other key stakeholders. It’s often not possible to choose who you work with so you need to be able to assess others’ behaviour and adapt to it. Again, recruiters will observe how you interact with other candidates and may ask you relevant questions in interviews, for example to give an example of a time when you have dealt with a difficult person. would like to thank Jane Lees, an HR resourcing specialist at National Grid, for her kind help with this article.

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