Faculty members at America's colleges and universities have long thought that an alarming number of high school graduates do not have the needed writing skills when they arrive on campus.
Now they have been joined by major corporate leaders in the United States who complain about a serious deficiency in writing skills being shown by today's college graduates.
A survey of executives from business and industry was prepared by the National Commission on Writing, a report of the responses from 120 human resource directors in companies affiliated with the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives from American corporations with combined annual revenues of more than $4 trillion.
The findings are certain to lift many eyebrows, since they are both startling and compelling. The report, which was sent to Congress, revealed some blunt findings:
- People who cannot write and communicate clearly are less likely to be hired than people who have those skills, and, if hired, are unlikely to last long enough to be considered for promotion.
- Half of the 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. Replied another, "You can't move up without writing skills."
- Two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing responsibility.
- Eighty percent or more of the companies in the service and the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors -- the corporations with the greatest employment growth potential -- assess writing during hiring. "Applicants who provide poorly written letters wouldn't likely get an interview," noted one insurance executive.
- More than 40 percent of the responding firms offer or require training for salaried employees with writing deficiencies.
Based on unmistakable responses like these, the Commission estimated that having to remedy writing deficiencies among employees is costing businesses as much as $3.1 billion a year. At a time when colleges and universities are being paralyzed by continued budget reductions, one has to think of what could be accomplished without this obvious writing problem and if the institutions were receiving those dollars from the private sector for academic enrichment.
So now we can see that writing is not only a necessary tool for the crafting of a good education, it is also a fundamental building block for designing and achieving professional success and advancement. It is significant to point out that virtually all colleges and universities, public and private, large and small, are in the act of currying favor with business and industry, hoping to enlarge endowments. I believe corporate leaders would reward those institutions of higher learning willing to address this fundamental flaw, a situation that impacts their bottom line.
Without question, most of the new and meaningful jobs that will be available in the years ahead will emphasize writing. If today's students want to compete for professional work in service firms, in banking, finance, insurance, and real estate, they must know how to communicate clearly and concisely through the written word. To remain competitive in an increasingly global economy and to meet the needs of an ever-changing workplace, America needs to pay new and special attention to developing the writing skills of all students, regardless of their year in school.
Some among us have the misconception that improved technology means there is less of a need for good writing. But, in fact, the survey clearly tells us that employees are expected to write more than ever. It is time for leaders in our society to underpin the importance of writing in our schools, colleges, and universities.
-- Gene A. Budig, former president/chancellor of West Virginia University and Kansas University and past president of Major League Baseball's American League, is a member of the National Commission on Writing.