Since starting Ricochet Public Relations seven years ago, Todd Aydelotte has tested the writing skills of scores of college graduates applying for jobs at the $3 million New York City PR firm. The test, a challenging exercise in translating complex technical jargon into business prose, has usually proved too much for applicants, who include many alumni of elite institutions. "The majority of people who take this test fail it," says the entrepreneur. "That's been a real shocker to me."
Many employers agree with Aydelotte that today's college graduates display poor writing skills, and that it's a significant problem. A 2006 study of large employers by a consortium of business and literacy groups found that written communication ranked at or near the top of a list of skills required in a wide range of jobs. "Ninety-three percent said written communication was very important for college graduates," says Linda Barrington, a labor economist at The Conference Board and co-author of the study.
The surveyed employers also said, however, that both high school and college graduates fell short in basic grammar as well as more advanced skills such as writing effective memos. Eighty-one percent felt high school graduates didn't measure up. And surprisingly, "A quarter of our respondents said that new entrants with a four-year college degree are deficient in written communication and basic English skills," Barrington says.
This was the first survey done on this topic by The Conference Board and its partners, so Barrington can't say whether new entries to the U.S. job market are getting better or worse. Aydelotte, however, does have results from testing over a sizable period of time, and he reports little change. "The bar has stayed consistently where it's at," he says. "I don't see any upward trends that writing has gotten better in the past seven years."
Most corporations prefer to assign responsibility for fixing the problem to the educational system. Just 11 percent felt it was the job of businesses, according to Barrington, who agrees that educators could better address employers' needs.
The study cited solutions such as testing to identify the small number of job applicants who write well, along with searching overseas for better candidates. Internal training was largely absent in respondents' organizations, but perhaps corporations should tutor writing-deficient employees. Lu Rehling, director of the technical and professional writing program at San Francisco State University, says businesses can help employees become better writers, but it takes time, effort and money. Workplace writing skills training is most effective when it's customized and involves one-on-one or small-group coaching. "You can't get a quick fix," Rehling says. "There isn't a three-step program where all of a sudden you're a great writer." You can also encourage employees to take college-level writing courses by reimbursing tuition and emphasizing writing in performance reviews.
Although Aydelotte, 38, conducts extensive employee training on specialized PR job skills, he doesn't think he can teach college graduates basic writing skills if they haven't already learned them in school. "We just don't have the time to do that here," he says.
Nor do most small businesses have the resources to recruit overseas, of course. But given the relatively modest number of hires required to staff his 25-person firm, Aydelotte feels confident his writing test can both weed out unskilled writers and attract those with a genuine gift for written communication. Says Aydelotte, "It's the most important recruiting tool we have."
Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is authorof Not Just a Living.