Tuesday, February 17, 2015


I Shouldn’t Be Surprised By Now, And Yet…

We had an employer advisory board meeting yesterday for a complex technical program that we’re determined to expand.  (For purposes of this piece, I don’t need to name it or get terribly specific, so I won’t.)  Several local employers were present, each offering useful feedback on ways to structure what we’re doing to put students in the most competitive position on the market.  We also had faculty from the program at the meeting, to make sure that we kept the discussion realistic and to follow the more inside-baseball parts of the conversation.

I’ve been to enough of these over the years that I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened.  You’d think I would have learned by now.  And yet, there it is.

When asked about skill gaps we could address, the top answer was…

wait for it…

Writing.  Technical writing, specifically.  They needed technicians who could document their procedures well enough for other employees to use them.

Some variation on that happens at every employer advisory board.  We hear about the specific skills or knowledge bases needed in a given field, and that varies widely from field to field.  (The specific skills in, say, medical billing are different from the ones in Culinary.)  But then the discussion turns to general communication skills, especially in writing, and the employers get really animated.  That’s where they shift from a relatively dispassionate analysis of industry trends to really passionate stories of frustration with flaws they don’t know how to fix.  They can train people around new pieces of hardware or new regulations, but they don’t know what to do with people who can’t write clearly enough to be understood.

You don’t even have to know which industry I’m referring to; it applies to all of them.

If it were only one industry, I could assume we were seeing a reflection of something specific to it: a very low wage scale, say, or a high population of English language learners who weren’t quite there yet.  But it happens in every industry, including some lucrative ones, and the examples they cite are of people who grew up here.  I’ve seen it at three colleges now.  It’s a pattern.

This is why I get twitchy when I hear more traditionally academic programs or courses disparaged as lacking “real world” relevance.  The content may, sometimes; I don’t use my Stuart Restoration trivia much on the job.  But some of the skills are absolutely relevant.  And to the extent that they have to be refined, it’s much easier to teach a skilled writer a particular format.  My brother has built a career on this very thing: he parlayed the skills honed as a history and religion double major into a job as a technical writer, from there, his skills at analysis, synthesis, and communication moved him up the ladder quickly.  

I’m happy to work with local employers to help people who need jobs gain the skills they need to do work that needs doing, especially when the industry is growing locally.  That’s just a huge win all around.  But I’m also happy to hear, again, that some skills never go out of style.  

Every time by business school asked its board of advisers (all local businesspeople) what their priorities were, ability to write clearly was always, always number 1. The ability to communicate orally was usually number 2.
As an engineering professor, I do my best to teach students how to write. In my senior thesis writing course, I'm grading 6–7 20–40-page thesis drafts a week, giving detailed comments on their writing.

But I can't compensate for K-12 instructors who never bothered to teach any grammar, nor the composition instructors who were satisfied with vague statements of feelings. Some students write very well, and I have great respect for them and their former teachers. But so many of the students can't put together a coherent paragraph, much less a whole thesis! (And I'm at a school that only takes the top 12%—it must be much worse at the 2nd tier colleges.)
Ask those folks to donate to writing centers and writing programs at all levels, and they'll benefit from the results. Writing well takes lots of practice, like playing the piano well, and doesn't happen in one semester.

If it's important to business people, they need to be willing to pay for it, and to impress upon the system that they don't just need to fund STEM system stuff (yes, STEM stuff is also important, of course).

I'm sure they're careful to hire people they can train who already know how to write.

So true. Yet, when I teach writing, the students don't see the relevance. I keep trying to provide real-world examples, but it's a tough sell to the students.

And my view on the "they should have learned this earlier" argument is that they didn't learn it. So I can complain about their earlier experiences, or I can invest the time to teach them. I find the second more productive.
It seems like only yesterday we were discussing how grammar is no longer taught in K-12. I wonder why that is?
Good point, Bardiac.
Even more reason for Gen Ed and Developmental writing professors to be FT, TT, paid the professional salary and professional supports (training, tenure, time to research, write, and present at conferences with funding support) that other FT, TT teaching deserves. Instead, Gen Ed and Developmental comp is assigned to the lowest paid, most poorly supported faculty: adjuncts and other contingent faculty.
I don't see why the fact this cuts across industries means it can't be a reflection of not paying people enough.

What is that that one needs to write? "Money and a room of one's own". Two very specific kinds of slack in your life. Sufficient money can't make up for a lifestyle that is a frenetic flurry. Very few people outside of tenured professors are compensated well in both money and time to sit back and think carefully. It does happen in academia, but that is precisely what makes academia special.

Becca, we are likely talking about people who do have money and a room (or more likely a cubicle) of their own. These are people whose job requires (in addition to specific technical work they were trained for in college) writing reports, developing proposals, and even "just" documenting computer code that keeps you alive when you fly on a commercial airliner.

The problem is usually what LJL describes. It is a tough sell, because they simply do not believe us. (Heck, some of them think we need a teacher's version of the text like their teachers had in HS.) Many don't even believe an engineering professor with work experience, explaining why they write reports and make presentations in every class, let alone a comp professor.

IMO, the solution isn't money, as Bardiac describes, but time. Time to talk to a class or two. What gets their attention is when the person who actually wants to hire them says "yes" when asked if s/he really meant it when saying you won't get promoted if you can't write well.
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