Guest Blog: Traci Nathans-Kelly, editor of the Wiley-IEEE PCS Book Series

Normally, watching a segment of 60 Minutes is a bit of mind candy for me. There are some interesting facts, a little nice storytelling, and perhaps I’m made to think a little bit more about something that I had not pondered before.

But on the November 11 edition, I watched with some vested interest as the segment was about jobs in the industrial sector and who was qualified to get them. Byron Pitts, the 60 Minutes reporter, interviewed Ryan Costella of Click Bond, a company in Nevada. Costella, the Strategic Initiatives officer for Click Bond, provided a wonderful window into what industry needs for entry-level workers of all skills. Here, I quote from the transcript at the 60 Minutes website:

Byron Pitts: [clip] So the skill gap, is it across the board? Is it at all levels? Or is it the entry level?

Ryan Costella: I would honestly say it’s probably an entry level problem. It’s those basic skill sets. Show up on time, you know, read, write, do math, problem solve. I can’t tell you how many people even coming out of higher ed with degrees who can’t put a sentence together without a major grammatical error. It’s a problem. If you can’t do the resume properly to get the job, you can’t come work for us. We’re in the business of making fasteners that hold systems together that protect people in the air when they’re flying. We’re in the business of perfection.

This was music to my ears, as a teacher of technical/engineering writing for undergraduates and graduates for around 20 years. Costella tells us the basic qualifications for a new hire:  show up on time and communicate well.

Multiple studies of what engineering organizations want in new hires tell us again and again that they desire new hires to have problems solving skills and good communication skills. Go look at the job ads for all levels of engineering and technical positions, even on Monster.com.  More likely than not, you will see that applicants should have “excellent communication skills” listed as a desired attribute.

Too often, however, the communication of technical information is seen as secondary (or even unimportant altogether) to the engineering or technical event itself in both academe and in business. But the practicing professionals know better and the people writing the job ads know better. They know that good communication counts in the technical world. For years, I have said to students, “If you cannot write a simple sentence, why would they want to hire you for a highly technical job?  And if you already have the job and you can’t discern the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ in a report, then how can they trust you with costly machines or big projects?”

While it is true that language is rarely perfect, there are some basic rules to follow. They are not difficult rules. And within those grammar rules, there are places for style, choice, and voice. But, as Costella hinted at, if you can’t handle a simple sentence, maybe complicated technical work isn’t for you. Writing basic, good sentences in an organized and thoughtful manner may indicate that a person has a systems way of thinking…a problem solving way of thinking. And that can only be good for technical and engineering professionals.

You can contact Traci Nathans-Kelly at  tracink@ieee.org.

Comments

  1. The ability to communicate clear messages in writing is critical for the success of individuals in the workplace and the organizations they represent. On one level, people recognize this. That’s why job ads nearly always mention “communication” as an essential skill. And it’s why so much money is spent in industry and government on training.

    Lately, I’ve been thinking about the problem from multiple perspectives. I see four possible obstacles to effective and efficient writing in the workplace:
    1. Not enough individuals are able to write in plain language. (I’m using the term “plain language” to refer to effective and efficient workplace writing. This is the obstacle I’ve devoted my own efforts to as a college educator.)
    2. Not enough individuals are willing to write in plain language. (I’ve spent some of my efforts in this area. But it seems most folks think other people’s communication skills are the problem. Relatively few are motivated to improve their own writing skills.)
    3. Not enough organizations are able to deliver documents written in plain language. (I don’t understand whether this is the result of poorly educated employees or supervisors — or both.)
    4. Not enough organizations are willing to deliver documents written in plain language. (Again, I don’t if this is a problem with individual employees or with organizational culture.)

    These obstacles will be the focus of my sabbatical research next fall. I’m writing about these issues on my blog (see http://proswrite.com/2012/10/27/why-hasnt-plain-language-become-the-norm/). I hope some of you will weigh in with your own thoughts.

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