Program aims to improve social skills

by Jeff Hargarten

Zhe Yang spoke slowly âÄî eyes downcast while chewing on a piece of pizza âÄî of his aspirations. Less than a year from graduation, Yang is looking to gain interpersonal skills to jump-start his career.

This semester, Yang and a group of University of Minnesota engineering students will learn a set of marketable skills through the Gemini Project âÄì College of Science and EngineeringâÄôs new career program.

The project teaches social and professional networking skills to students who may otherwise struggle in those areas and specifically targets engineering students, program chairwoman Tess Surprenant said.

âÄúWeâÄôre looking to build better engineers,âÄù said Mike Siegler, one of the speakers for the program.

Siegler is one of the many professional representatives volunteering their time to train potential hires graduating from the University.

Plans for the program started in 2005, after University alumni donated $4 million to CSE, then the Institute of Technology. The donation came with the stipulation that the University start teaching important life and job marketing skills, Surprenant said.

 She said training engineering students with social skills is an emerging national trend throughout technical colleges âÄî something that was widely overlooked before.

 âÄúWeâÄôre starting to call them âÄòtransferable skillsâÄô instead of soft skills,âÄù Surprenant said. âÄúSoft skills suggest they are easy, and for some people theyâÄôre not.âÄù

The University prepares students with the technical skills, but not the people skills required to survive in the job market, Surprenant said.

CSE used to have a simple two-credit interpersonal skills course, Surprenant said, but it wasnâÄôt required. She said the Gemini Project is completely novel to the University and will offer free classes without a registration requirement to attract a larger audience.

Each of the 11 classes covers a different topic related to people skills and will be offered every semester.

Students will learn leadership and personal networking skills, be taught office politics, teamwork and understanding generational differences between coworkers.

Surprenant hopes to have up to 100 students per class, and wide student appeal. Each class offers free food like pizza and brownies.

She said the project has drawn a lot of attention from local companies and employers.

âÄúCompanies see this as vital,âÄù she said.

Siegler, for example, is looking for passion, integrity and an outgoing nature in applicants to his company, UTC Fire and Security.

âÄúWe donâÄôt need them to be politicians,âÄù he said. âÄúWe need the people skills not taught at the University.âÄù

Corporate volunteers stay to speak with students after each class, giving interviewing tips and critiquing résumés.

Steven Peschman, a chemical engineering undergraduate, applied to six companies at the recent CSE job fair, and wants a chance to score a job.

Peschman said he plans to attend all of the classes, and thus far finds them helpful.

âÄúSocial skills are not innate to me,âÄù he said. âÄúIâÄôm here to learn the things that come naturally to other people, since they donâÄôt come naturally to me.âÄù

Yang said he has been to several career fairs recently, but is still looking for an opportunity. Yang said he is âÄútesting the courses out.âÄù

The classes are available every other Wednesday throughout the semester at the Science Teaching and Student Services building, Surprenant said.