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.