A Snapshot of Employers’ Expectations of Graduates’ Skills and Abilities in Technical Communications
by Paula Rosinski
In a previous blog post, Julia Bleakney discussed some of the methods and documents that researchers have used to “capture employers’ expectations for the communication skills and abilities of college graduates in technical and engineering fields.” In this blog, I’ll examine the results of these same studies and summarize their conclusions.
- tended to assume deficiencies in graduates’ writing, from the employers’ perspectives;
- often explored whether those deficiencies could be taught in college or had to be learned on the job; and
- if the former, proposed how to adjust curricula to rectify those deficiencies.
These studies focused on technical communication, as this field’s historical links to industry has led to more research in this area; and as Bleakney summarized, the methods they used include accessing, interviewing, and surveying employers and analyzing online job ads.
These studies’ conclusions are summarized in the chart below. Information about the participants/documents studied, how participants/documents were accessed, research instruments, and methods are summarized in Bleakney’s earlier blog. About half of these studies (typically the earlier studies) interviewed employers (collectively totaling about 125 interviews) and about half (typically the more recent studies) analyzed job ads (collectively totaling about 3,000 job ads) to determine communication/writing expectations of graduates. The older studies tended to interview employers, while the more recent studies tended to study job ads. Some studies then compared these expectations with what was happening in the curriculum, thereby arriving at conclusions about deficiencies in the curricula (and sometimes the graduates) and making suggestions for better aligning workplace and college writing experiences. In general, researchers made assumptions about graduates’ deficiencies by comparing job ads and what employers say they want with what happens in curricula.
|Study||Goal of study||Conclusions of the study|
|Pfeiffer 1999||To assess what employers expected from students with a Computer Science degree||Employers want graduates with real job experience or experience gained from internships, coops, or volunteer work; participation in competitions, honors projects, undergraduate thesis, and other “interesting” projects developed outside of class.
Employers want graduates to have strong communication skills and problem-solving ability. Here communications skills are broadly defined, including strong written and spoken English; ability to help customers understand requirements; ability to ask questions; ability to respond to questions quickly/concisely; ability to sell oneself; ability to create metaphors to convey a system’s purpose.
Employers were very critical of computer science graduates’ expectations of first jobs and their social/professional skills. They were critical of “toy” class projects that weren’t even worth putting on a resume, and instead preferred projects that spanned multiple semesters and involved outside clients.
Employers want graduates to have strong written skills. Although faculty may think they are providing these skills, what matters is what employers think, and they think there is a disjunction.
|Rainey et al. 2005||To identify which communication competencies manager seek; to compare managers’ opinions with skills stressed in course descriptions||Employers want technical communicators to have skills collaborating with subject-matter experts and coworkers; the ability to write clearly for different audiences and purposes; the ability to assess/learn to use technologies; the ability to act independently, evaluate one’s own work and work of others, and be a “self-starter.”
Recommends that colleges should develop students’ “interpersonal and collaborative skills” and to assess the effectiveness of current instruction. Assess and revise approach to technology instruction, so that it includes considering the impact of technology on their work and the human community.
|Ruff and Carter 2009||To identify a set of communication skills that are specific enough to be taught||Software engineers should be able to: design communication; explain clearly; discuss productively; receive communication; communicate professionally; use common forms and tools.|
|Lanier 2009||To understand how widespread are skills (identified in other studies) by looking at the skills listed in job ads.||Employers value experience (gained through internships, client- or service-learning projects). They also value general technical writing experience but also specialized subject-matter or writing experience.|
|Ruff and Carter 2015||To rank importance to employers of different communication abilities and to identify which skills can be learned on the job||This study begins by “pointing to the well-documented gap between employers’ expectations for communication abilities of recent engineering graduates and abilities those graduates bring to their jobs” (140).
Employers expect engineering graduates to be able to communicate clearly and professionally (correct spelling and grammar; being concise; giving sufficient explanations; giving high-level overviews).
Graduates meet many of the expectations of employers (such as using correct terminology, using fluent English, being nice to others in word and tone, emailing, individual presentations, small talk, phone conversations, IMing).
Graduates lacked several expectations, such as recognizing one’s own communication weaknesses, improving one’s own communication skills, being concise, connecting new information to information already familiar to an audience, and ordering information in a way that is easy for an audience to follow.
Graduates are not expected to have occupation-specific abilities, or the ability to communicate with conference posters or journal articles.
Study suggests college instructors could use these results to assess and revise their curricula accordingly.
|Brumberger & Lauer 2015||To examine current range of skills, competencies, products, and traits requested of technical communicators in the workplace||Job ads showed a great deal of variety in position titles, falling into roughly five categories: content developer/manager, grant/proposal writer, medical writer, social media writer, and technical writer/editor. Although the documents written and the softwares used varied greatly, there were common competencies that spanned all job categories.
Written communication was the most frequently cited competency needed across all job categories (it appeared in at least 70% of all the categories, and much more in grant/proposal writing and medical writing). Also common across all job categories was competency in project management. Editing was the third most requested competency across all job categories).
|Peltola 2018||To consider the degree to which what is needed in practice for PR students is achieved in the classroom, and identify gaps to inform curricular revision||Assumes a deficit on part of graduates; cites the Society for Human Resources Management (2016) report that there’s a skill shortage: “more than half of those [employers] surveyed indicate some level of basic skills/knowledge deficits among job applicants; 84% report applied skills shortages in job applicants in the last year” (47).
Skills needed: communication, social media, critical thinking, interpersonal, and time management.
Emergent skills needed: social intelligence, novel and adaptive thinking, cultural competency, new media literacy, transdisciplinary digital platforms, and virtual collaboration.
Conclusion: need “greater synergy between higher education’s programmatic learning outcome and the practical competencies that develop from theory and training” (47).
|Chopra et al 2018||To show how text and graph mining are useful methods to understand employer expectations.||This study showcased how using text and graph mining methods can give us timely insights into employer expectations; graduate preparedness for certain jobs/fields; ways for job-seekers to adjust their resumes to reflect the skills sought after in job ads; ways to identify jobs that students should apply to; and students that employers should interview. The actual strengths or weaknesses of graduates is not the focus of this article.|
Taking these studies as a whole, it seems that employers want graduates to:
- communicate effectively and concisely to different audiences orally and in writing, including clients;
- collaborate with content experts and colleagues;
- use necessary technologies/softwares; and
- be self-sufficient, knowing how to figure things out on their own by asking good questions.
They prefer graduates who have gained experience by holding a job, participating in internships or coops, or engaging in client-based or service-learning projects with real external clients.
While this is a limited survey of the scholarship, the lack of actually talking with employers about graduates’ communication/writing experiences indicates a fruitful area for further research.
- Blythe, Stuart, Claire Lauer, and Paul Curran. 2014. “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World.” Technical Communication Quarterly 23, No. 4: 265-287, Doi: 1080/10572252.2014.941766
- Brumberger, Eva, and Claire Lauer. 2015. “The Evolution of Technical Communication: An Analysis of Industry Job Postings.” Technical Communication 62, No. 4: 224-243.
- Chopra, Shivangi, Lukasz Golab, T. Judene Pretti, And Andrew Toulis. 2018. “Using Data Mining Methods For Research In Co-operative Education.”International Journal Of Work-integrated Learning, Special Issue 19 No. 3: 297-310.
- Lanier, Clinton. 2009. “Analysis of The Skills Called for by Technical Communication Employers in Recruitment Postings.” Technical Communication 56, No. 1: 51-61.
- Lang, James D., Susan Cruse, Francis Mcvey, and John McMasters. 1999. “Industry Expectations of New Engineers: A Survey to Assist Curriculum Designers.” Journal of Engineering Education 99, No. 1: 43-51.
- Peltola, Arlene. 2018. “Lead Time: An Examination of Workplace Readiness in Public Relations Education.” International Journal of Work-integrated Learning19 No. 1: 37-50.
- Pfeiffer, Phil. 1999. “What Employers Want from Students: A Report from Oopsla.” Sigcse Bulletin 31, No. 2: 69-70.
- Rainey, Kenneth, Roy Turner and David Dayton. 2005. “Do Curricula Correspond to Managerial Expectations? Core Competencies for Technical Communicators.” Technical Communication 52, No. 2: 323-352.
- Ruff, Susan, and Michael Carter. 2009. “Communication Learning Outcomes from Software Engineering Professionals: A Basis for Teaching Communication in the Engineering Curriculum.” Frontiers In Education Conference Proceedings (W1e). Piscataway, NJ: Institute Of Electrical And Electronics Engineers: 1-6.
- Ruff, Susan, and Michael Carter. 2015. “Characterizing Employers’ Expectations of The Communication Abilities of New Engineering Graduates.” Journal on Excellence In College Teaching 26, No.4: 125-147.
Paula Rosinski is Director of Writing Across the University in the Center for Writing Excellence and Professor of English: Professional Writing & Rhetoric at Elon University. She is co-leading the 2019-2021 research seminar on Writing Beyond the University: Fostering Writers’ Lifelong Learning and Agency.
How to cite this post:
Rosinski, Paula. 2020, August 4. “A Snapshot of Employers’ Expectations of Graduates’ Skills and Abilities in Technical Communications” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/A-Snapshot-of-Employers’-Expectations-of-Graduates’-Skills-and-Abilities-in-Technical-Communications