Writing Skills Necessary for Employment, Says Big Business

Poorly written job applications are a figurative kiss of death, and corporations spend several billion dollars annually improving writing among employees, according to a business survey released here today by a blue-ribbon group worried about the quality of writing in the nation's schools and colleges.

The report, Writing: A Ticket to Work...Or a Ticket Out, A Survey of Business Leaders, concludes that the ability to write opens doors to professional employment. It was prepared by the National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges, which surveyed 120 human resource directors in companies affiliated with Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers from U.S. corporations with combined annual revenues of more than $4 trillion.

"Writing is both a 'marker' of high-skill, high-wage, professional work and a 'gatekeeper' with clear equity implications," said Bob Kerrey, president of New School University in New York and chair of the Commission. "People unable to express themselves clearly in writing limit their opportunities for professional, salaried employment," he said.

The survey found that advanced technology in the workplace plays a significant role. "With the fast pace of today's electronic communications, one might think that the value of fundamental writing skills has diminished in the workplace," said Joseph M. Tucci, president and CEO of EMC Corporation and chairman of the Business Roundtable's Education and the Workforce Task Force. "Actually, the need to write clearly and quickly has never been more important than in today's highly competitive, technology-driven global economy."

According to the report, which follows up on the Commission's pronouncement last year that writing is "the neglected 'R' in school reform":

  • People who cannot write and communicate clearly will not be hired, and are unlikely to last long enough to be considered for promotion. Half of responding companies reported that they take writing into consideration when hiring professional employees and when making promotion decisions. "In most cases, writing ability could be your ticket in . . . or it could be your ticket out," said one respondent. Commented another: "You can't move up without writing skills."
  • Two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing responsibility. "All employees must have writing ability‚Ķ. Manufacturing documentation, operating procedures, reporting problems, lab safety, waste-disposal operations-all have to be crystal clear," said one human resource director.
  • Eighty percent or more of the companies in the services and the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sectors, the corporations with greatest employment growth potential, assess writing during hiring. "Applicants who provide poorly written letters wouldn't likely get an interview," commented one insurance executive.
  • More than 40 percent of responding firms offer or require training for salaried employees with writing deficiencies. "We're likely to send out 200-300 people annually for skills upgrade courses like 'business writing' or 'technical writing,'" said one respondent.

Based on survey responses, the Commission estimates that remedying deficiencies in writing costs American corporations as much as $3.1 billion annually.

"While trying to improve math, science, and technology in our schools, we've neglected writing," said Commission member Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which founded the Commission. "Writing is a fundamental professional skill. Most of the new jobs in the years ahead will emphasize writing. If students want professional work in service firms, in banking, finance, insurance, and real estate, they must know how to communicate on paper clearly and concisely."

Among "hourly" (i.e., nonprofessional) employees, writing expectations are not as high as they are for "salaried" workers, according to survey results. Even among hourly workers, however, between one-fifth and one-third of employees in fast-growing service sectors have some writing responsibility, says the Commission. "Not surprisingly, we found that e-mail has had a big effect on who communicates in corporate America and how frequently," noted Caperton. "The very clear message we received is that more employees are writing about more things more often."

"I believe that much of what is important in American life depends on clear oral and written communication," noted Kerrey. "This survey confirms everything we believe about how the ability to present oneself persuasively and articulately on paper is a big part of individual opportunity in the United States," Kerrey said.

The Commission points to three key policy issues highlighted by the survey results. Since writing is a "marker" attribute of high-wage work, schools and colleges interested in preparing students for rewarding work should worry about student writing. Writing is also a "gatekeeper," says the Commission, a conclusion with significant implications for the communications skills of English-language learners and the poor, who may be consigned to low-wage, dead-end work without attention to their special needs around communication and writing. Finally, writing skills cannot be developed quickly or easily, but should be the focus of school and college attention across the curriculum, from kindergarten through college.

The National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges is a blue-ribbon group of leaders from public schools, higher education, and the business and writing communities. Commission members are committed to doubling the amount of time students in American schools and colleges spend writing. Business Roundtable is an association of chief executive officers of more than 150 leading American corporations with a combined workforce of more than 10 million employees in the United States and combined annual revenues of $4 trillion. The chief executives are committed to advocating public policies that foster vigorous economic growth and a dynamic global economy. The Roundtable encouraged 120 of its members to participate in the survey, which was developed and administered by the Commission. A total of 64 companies responded.

You can download Writing: A Ticket to Work . . . Or a Ticket Out (.pdf/356k). Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader (latest version recommended).

Source: National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges


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