Businesses Find College Grads Deficient in Written, Oral Communication

American businesses need skilled workers. But results of a report by the Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management found that when it comes to skills business leaders consider important—especially written and oral communication—our students are not making the grade.

Are They Really Ready for Work? surveyed more than 400 employers and concluded that U.S. students are too often deficient upon entering the workforce. For example, business leaders consider written communication "very important," but over one-fourth of four-year college graduates and nearly half of two-year college students were found to have deficient writing skills.

The report cited specific writing problems employers complain about: incorrect word usage, poor grammar, and spelling errors that occur throughout reports, presentations, and e-mails. The survey's authors hypothesize that graduates' poor preparedness may be a result of two factors—the low priority of writing instruction in schools and students' use of casual writing that carries over to the workplace. The lack of skills in both basic writing and effective business communication is a "major stumbling block" to college graduate job seekers, the report said.

Employers consider oral communication another skill vital for those in entry-level jobs. Defined as the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas effectively and to possess public speaking skills, oral communication was the No. 1 applied skill that 95 percent of employers labeled "very important" among graduates of four-year institutions. For graduates of two-year colleges, 82 percent of employers said oral communication was "very important." But only 3 percent of two-year college students and about 25 percent of four-year college graduates were found to possess excellent oral communication skills.

The report found that employers also put considerable significance on teamwork and collaboration, which ranked as the second most important skill for all new entrants to the workforce. Still, only a small percentage of college-educated students excelled in collaborative skills—just 11 percent from two-year schools and 24 percent from four-year institutions.

The report did note that college graduates are better prepared than those without a higher education. But employers found only about one fourth of four-year college graduates to be excellent; most were labeled as "adequate."

The findings of Are They Really Ready for Work? are linked to the nation's ability to remain competitive. In the global marketplace, a high-quality workforce is critical. Yet nearly three out of four employers who rated global competitiveness as either "very" or "most" important also reported difficulty finding qualified U.S. workers. Workers' poor preparedness impacts businesses' bottom line. Although the actual cost of remedial training and a deficient workforce are difficult to determine, employer losses in productivity alone put a significant burden on American businesses.

Between 2000 and 2015, about 85 percent of newly created U.S. jobs will require education beyond high school. The survey recommended that business leaders take a more active role in providing an outline of the types of skills educational institutions teach so that more young people entering the workforce are prepared to meet the challenges of working in the 21st century.

Source: Casner-Lotto, J., & Barrington, L. (2006). Are they really ready for work? Employers' Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce. Retrieved September 25, 2009, from http://www.21stcenturyskills.org/documents/FINAL_REPORT_PDF09-29-06.pdf