Employers seek applicants with polished writing skills

    The recession is putting the squeeze on most job seekers, both those with years of experience as well as young graduates just starting out. For every advertised job opening, there are dozens of applicants.

    In such a tight job market, both seasoned employees as well as new graduates must have the skills employers need. And increasingly in business, that means good business-writing capabilities.

    But finding recruits who can write well for businesses can be difficult, according to surveys of U.S. employers. So when a job applicant can demonstrate a facility for business writing, it just might mean the important edge that other candidates lack.

    Just ask Jessica La Plante-Wikgren of Green Bay, who is completing course work in the Master of Arts in English-Writing Concentration program at Mount Mary College.  She credits the program with helping her land a job at The Greater Green Bay Community Foundation, where she assists with grant administration and donor recruitment, using the skills she learned in the graduate-level grant-writing course.

    Or Tom Matthews of Wauwatosa.  He had years of experience writing for publications and had also done script and fiction writing. He wanted to beef up his background with business writing, so he, too, enrolled in the Mount Mary program because he liked its mix of creative and professional writing. Like Jessica, he also took the grant-writing class, which ultimately led to a part-time job writing grants for the Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove.

    The Master of Arts in English-Writing Concentration program provides students with a breadth of both graduate level professional and creative writing instruction. It offers advanced, specialized writing courses that give students the opportunity to develop areas of interest in depth – including the skills needed to succeed in business, such as grant writing, promotional writing, writing for publication, script writing, desktop publishing, advertising copywriting or writing for health professions, among others.

    The program is thought to be the only one of its kind in the state. We decided to establish the program after conducting a number of exit interviews with our undergrad students, and they continually asked for a master’s in English.

    Before launching the program in 2006, we queried local companies – employers like Rockwell Automation Inc., Johnson Controls Inc. and CompuWare – and asked them what types of writing they expected their professional employees to do. The employers cited such communication vehicles as annual reports, customer letters, PR materials, business proposals, grant writing – and emphasized the importance of having them written clearly and concisely.

    To help those companies meet that demand, we structured our program to offer courses that relate to real work situations. It also gives our students the tools they’ll need to be competitive for those jobs.

    How weak are many college graduates’ writing skills? Four years ago, the College Board, alarmed by the poor writing capabilities it had observed on its nationwide college-entrance exams, formed a national Commission on Writing.

    “Writing is a fundamental professional skill,” said College Board president Gaston Caperton in a report to Congress. “Most of the new jobs in the years ahead will emphasize writing. If students want professional work in service firms, they must know how to communicate on paper clearly and concisely.”

    The commission surveyed 120 major American corporations employing nearly 8 million people and asked about the writing capabilities they look for in job applicants. Here are some key findings:

    • Half the responding companies reported that they take writing into consideration when hiring professional employees. “In most cases, writing ability could be your ticket in  … or it could be your ticket out,” said one respondent.
    • People who cannot write and communicate clearly will not be hired and are unlikely to last long enough to be considered for promotion. “Poorly written application materials would be extremely prejudicial,” said another respondent.
    • Two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing responsibility. “All employees must have writing ability, (including) manufacturing documentation, operating procedures, reporting problems, lab safety, waste-disposal operations  and documents all have to be crystal clear,” said one human resource director.

    Caperton also criticized the way writing is taught – or isn’t taught – in many American schools.

    “While trying to improve math, science and technology in our schools, we’ve neglected writing,” he said. 

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