As the head of a technology staffing firm, I’ve seen smart people struggle to compose a thoughtful email, an instructive memo or an effective sales presentation. While competent in the majority of their job responsibilities, they lack key communications skills such as developing a cohesive argument and cogently expressing an idea. When it comes to these skills, more people in business are finding that words fail them.
In my experience, this skills shortage is more widespread than it was 10 or 20 years ago. And I’m not the only one who sees this. A Conference Board survey from a few years ago found that employers reported that reading comprehension and writing were important skills but were deficient in new hires. In a PayScale and Future Workplace survey of hiring managers in early 2016, 60 percent reported that recent graduates lacked critical thinking skills and 44 percent lacked writing proficiency.
Is it affecting business? Of course it is. The essence of business is trade, which requires selling a product, service or idea. Fundamental to selling is the ability to persuade people that you and your company are the right choice for their time and money. If you can’t communicate, it’s much more difficult to differentiate yourself or add value to a business relationship. The technical aspects – grammar, vocabulary and spelling – are only part of it. Lurking behind poor communication skills is a lack of critical thinking ability, meaning that people can’t analyze or interpret information and ideas, which can have a negative impact in business.
It’s a simplification to blame smartphones and social media where communication consists of sentence fragments, emojis and acronyms. I’m afraid the cause is systemic. A Chronicle of Higher Education survey from 2006 found that 61 percent of high school teachers said that their students have never written a paper longer than five pages, therefore not having the opportunity to develop more sophisticated writing skills. In a 2007 study at George Washington University, first-year undergraduates reported that the most frequent high school writing assignments required them to offer and support opinions, with a secondary emphasis on summarizing and synthesizing information. Students were rarely required to criticize an argument, define a problem and propose a solution, shape their writing to meet their readers’ needs or revise it based on feedback – exercises requiring critical thinking.
And the situation doesn’t always improve in college. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported on the results of an under-publicized standardized test given to freshmen and seniors at about 200 colleges to measure whether they’re learning to think better. At more than half of the schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table, the newspaper’s review of test scores concluded.
Our economy will see dramatic changes in the next decade as automation and artificial intelligence continue to grow. In all likelihood, many of the jobs of 2027 haven’t been invented yet. And because software will make so many decisions for us, technical skills may not be as important. The Pew Research Center estimates that employment in occupations requiring above-average written and spoken communication (in addition to interpersonal skills) will grow 8.1 percent compared with only 4.4 percent growth for occupations requiring below-average levels of those skills.
This deficiency doesn’t discriminate by generation; it stretches from millennials to baby boomers. Why? I think it’s because people don’t read as much as they used to. It’s easier to come home from work and turn on Real Housewives or Sports Center and tune out. Reading can take effort.
Warren Buffett reads 500 pages a day while Bill Gates reads about 50 books a year. That habit has worked out well for them. Reading not only informs and entertains, it also engages the intellect and exposes us to new ideas and concepts. It helps us obtain a mastery of the language and, perhaps most important, it hones critical thinking skills. After all, good communication is reflective of good thinking.
The good news is that it is never too late to begin reading more. The result is sharper thinking and eventually better communication.
James Thompson is the CEO and president of The InSource Group, a technology staffing and placement company with offices in Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston. He can be reached at JT@insourcegroup.com.