By Arnold Kling
On October 2, The Conference Board, an organization of American businesses, released a survey entitled “Are They Really Ready for Work?” The report, which was based on responses from 431 employers, hardly gives a ringing endorsement of our education system. Only 10 percent of the employers said that they find graduates of 2-year colleges “excellent” in terms of their overall preparation for work and only 24 percent rated graduates of 4-year colleges as “excellent.”
The greatest area of deficiency identified by the business respondents was in communications. Roughly half of new workforce entrants with 2-year degrees and more than a quarter with 4-year degrees were rated as “deficient” with regard to their ability to write and understand written material. That finding is not surprising, given the results of last year’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which concluded that literacy among college graduates was shockingly low – and falling.
What makes this so disturbing is that when asked to name the most important skills for new workers to have, business leaders said that those same communication skills were by far the most important.
For the class I taught at George Mason, I assigned a lot of writing and made it clear that the quality of writing would be 50 percent of the grade on each paper. This is very labor intensive compared with giving multiple choice tests and running them through a scanner. But I think it adds a lot more value.
I wonder what the consequences will be of this widespread inability to write. Some possibilities:
1. Writing will continue to be a prized skill. Those who cannot write will be relatively unproductive on average. Those who can write will earn a premium on average.
2. The employment mix will shift, with an increase in jobs that do not require good writing and a reduction in jobs that do.
3. The younger generation is adapting to technological change. Communication forms other than traditional writing will become more important. The ability to communicate rapidly, as in cell phone text messaging, may be more useful than the ability to write traditional sentences and paragraphs.