Published on 2012/02/16

Why You Must Require A Subject AND A Verb
Technical skills aren’t the only thing graduates should be getting out of their degrees. Strong communication skills are vital for anyone looking to join the workforce. Photo by Orin Zebest.

“Bad writing is killing America”, so declared Peter Shankman, the founder of Help a Reporter Out (a news lead service), in 2011. Perhaps this is a bit of an overstatement; perhaps not. However, the widespread lack of understanding in our culture about the importance of communication, including reading, writing, listening and speaking skills is rampant. Social media and visual based communication have changed the world, but good writing, reading for depth and speaking skills still matter. If higher education professionals deny this truth we are doing a disservice to our students, the future leaders of the world.

Higher education students are drowning in material they don’t know how to read, papers they don’t know how to write and presentations they are unable to give. At the same time employers are begging for job candidates who possess exactly these essential skills. The few jobs available in the current economy are going to go to those who can read and write at the professional level and those who can communicate with confidence and authority. To educators who say it’s different for STEM graduates I advise you to think again. If an employer can choose between a brilliant engineer who can communicate and an equally brilliant one who can’t there is no inducement to give the job to someone who cannot converse with colleagues or create readable reports and emails.

In a world where the job application process is becoming ever more technology based a graduate who can’t write a resume, fill out online forms properly or even speak clearly in video is at a huge disadvantage. Development of stellar communication skills needs to be a cross discipline issue on all higher education campuses. No educator with a conscience should allow students who are functionally illiterate to “slide by” a course or graduate with credentials that discredit an entire school.

These problems are not new. Employers have been complaining for years about graduates from high school, college, technical school and even graduate school who lack basic skills and critical thinking ability. Sadly, the education community and society at large have wasted so much time trying to figure out who is to blame, K-12 teachers, parents, students, college admissions reps, etc. that not much energy has been left over to solve the problem. We have a nation of people who can’t read simple contracts or their credit card statements. Thousands of jobs go unfilled while thousands of job seekers who are missing literacy and analysis skills stay frustrated and unemployed. The last few State of the Union Addresses were written at eighth grade level—for a reason. Ugly as this reality may be, we must face it head on and start fighting for a better future for our students and the world economy at large.

Instructors may have a difficult time deciding what to include and what to “skip” when creating a course. Sometimes it seems like everything is important and the class schedule is simply too short. It can feel unreasonable to be asked to also look for things like reading comprehension, writing skill and verbal communication technique. This is especially true if your teaching area is not English or Communications. However, it is time for higher education professionals in all areas to start insisting on better output.

No matter what the subject area, instructors should require students read for understanding, write for clarity and speak to connect. While it may seem cumbersome at first, once schools make the commitment that everyone will gently but firmly tell students that professional level communication is a requirement, the process will get easier. The first step is to have a campus wide dialogue on the need for better reading, writing and speaking skills. Secondly, we must model the behavior we desire. Professional development should include periodic training on communications issues. Finally, we must provide an assistance network of supplemental classes and tutoring as well as peer support for staff to make compliance possible and less painful.

Technology has changed communication methods, but it has not negated the need for quality. The world still needs in depth research, clear and concise contracts and yes…even clever advertising copy. Students who cannot understand and convey information will have fewer opportunities to survive and thrive in the new economy. By allowing students to slip out of higher education without solid reading, writing and speaking skills we are sending them into the world at a disadvantage.

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Readers Comments

Remy Karrington 2012/02/16 at 11:37 am

I agree that students are often leaving school without the necessary skills, but it is difficult to lay blame on any particular educator. This is a systemic issue. Why would a mechanical engineering professor teach oral communication? But why would an mechanical engineering student take an oral communication class? What you are describing is, in my mind, part of a larger dilemma of the trade-offs we make between general and technical skills in an economy where everyone is expected to be a specialist. What could be a solution?

Karen 2012/02/16 at 3:40 pm

Thanks for being my first comment. Yes, I agree we are looking at a complex systemic problem. We have to start somewhere. I don’t think engineering professors should get into the business of teaching communications and English, but they certainly recognize poor skills in these areas when they see them. At that point I would hope these instructors would recommend students access the network of services I mentioned, like tutoring or taking extra courses. The process of addressing these problems may not be easy or simple, but it must happen. Once schools have a campus wide agreement that these skills are important we can call that “step one”. I hope others who comment here will have some good ideas and potential solutions to explore.

bli lam 2012/02/16 at 10:27 pm

I totally agree with Karen that the US educational system is in need of an overhaul, and is falling behind many less advanced countries in the world.

Employers can demand a college degree for just about any job than in the past would have been suitable for a high school graduate. Why they do that? They can in today’s job market.

Colleges and technical schools know this is the reality of today, and in the rush to graduate as many students as they can, often overlook the lack of soft skills and communication ability of a candidate.

Teachers and professors who have been in the system far too long are reluctant to change or innovate. They teach the same way they did twenty or thirty years ago. Are they just making time to collect their generous pension?

Who would take the challenge and the uphill battle to have the government and the stake holders change a system that is sadly part of the American way?

WA Anderson 2012/02/20 at 9:29 am

It’s embarrassing how few college graduates today are actually capable of writing. One of the biggest complaints I keep hearing from employers–both in the public and private sector–is that they want people who are capable of expressing their ideas clearly and concisely.

Thank you for your insightful post – it’s time for communication skills to be emphasized on a grand scale.

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