In this blog post, I discuss the methods and documents researchers have used to capture employers’ expectations for the communication skills and abilities of college graduates in technical and engineering fields. These studies take as a “given” previous studies’ claims of the gap between graduates’ writing abilities and employers’ expectations (see Ruff and Carter 2015) and seek evidence of what specific abilities or skills are perceived to be lacking, to what extent these skills can be learned in college or need to be learned on the job, and how college curricula can be improved. While other studies have surveyed graduates (for instance Blythe et al 2014), the studies examined in this post survey employers or analyze documents that demonstrate the writing characteristics that employers seek. In a forthcoming blog post, Paula Rosinski will describe what employers from various fields say are the writing and communication needs of their hires, according to this research; I focus specifically on technical communication as there has been a substantial amount of research in this area, in part because technical communication programs have traditionally had strong links to industry.

In the studies of employers’ expectations examined for this blog, researchers reached employers through a range of professional networks or they accessed and analyzed job ads. Studies that surveyed or interviewed employers accessed them through professional networks, such as conferences (Pfeiffer 1999; Ruff and Carter 2009; Ruff and Carter 2015), through listservs (Rainey el al 2005; Ruff and Carter 2015), or university boards or events (Ruff and Carter 2009; Ruff and Carter 2015). Two large-scale studies of job ads (Lanier 2009, Brumberger & Lauer 2015) both accessed the ads via

As the research on this topic has developed, researchers have developed a more nuanced understanding of the communication skills employers seek. The earliest studies (Pfeiffer 1999; Rainey et al 2005) sought to identify the communication skills or competencies employers in technical fields expected of their recent college graduate hires. Rainey et al (2005) and Ruff and Carter (2009) connected these skills to university curricula in order to better prepare students for workplace writing. More recent research (Lanier 2009; Ruff and Carter 2015; Peltola 2018) had sought to nuance the earlier studies by identifying which skills employers prioritized or which ones employers felt should be learned on the job versus learned in college.

In addition, methods have become more robust. For instance, researchers looking at job ads (Brumberger & Lauer 2015, for instance) argue that surveys can be unreliable and that interviews and focus groups can yield a small response rate. Thus, a large-scale study of job ads (in Brumberger and Lauer’s case, 1,500 ads) provides an opportunity to see patterns across a large range of fields and jobs. Descriptions of methods have also become more robust, thereby aiding replicability. A recent article (Chopra et al 2018) argues for the use of text and data mining to understand employers’ expectations, providing a replicable method for other researchers to adopt and apply. Text mining identifies common words and graph mining identifies networks and connections in job interview data (in order to see the nature of competition).

The following reference chart compares participant size, how participants or documents were accessed, which research instruments were used, and what analysis methods were used, if this information was provided. Organized chronologically, the chart shows how research questions and methods have developed.

Study Goal of study Participants or documents How participants/ documents were accessed Research instruments Data analysis methods
Pfeiffer 1999 To assess what employers expected from students with a Computer Science degree Employers N=23 Exhibitors at OOPSLA conference Informal survey No methods discussed
Rainey et al. 2005 To identify which communication competencies manager seek; to compare managers’ opinions with skills stressed in course descriptions Managers N=67 (survey) N=3 (interviews)
Course descriptions N=156
Convenience sampling; subscribers to the Management SIG of the Society for Technical Communication & TECHWR-L listserv Concept analysis to identify skills in course descriptions & survey Managers were asked for their priorities and also ranked skills in course descriptions
Ruff and Carter 2009 To identify a set of communication skills that are specific enough to be taught Engineers (N=29)  at 22 US companies
2/3 managers,
1/3 practicing engineers
NSF-sponsored Chautauqua in Teaching Communication Skills in the Software Engineering Curriculum; strategic advisory board of CS dept. at large land grant university Focus groups (in person and online) and interviews, plus email responses
Open ended questions; 35-45 min interviews
From data gathered, generated a list of skills. Don’t explain their approach.
Lanier 2009 To understand how widespread are skills (identified in other studies) by looking at the skills listed in job ads. 1,399 job ads Collected job ads from over a 3-month period, using term ‘technical writer.’ Only jobs requiring 2+ years of experience Coded using categories based on skills derived from two or more previous studies. Created sub-categories using axial coding mechanism of Flick (2003).
Ruff and Carter 2015 To rank importance to employers of different communication abilities and to identify which skills can be learned on the job Software engineer professionals who hire/ review performance of recent graduates & another survey of professionals
N=not stated
NSF-sponsored Chautauqua in Teaching Communication Skills in the Software Engineering Curriculum; employers at 2 career fairs at MIT, exhibitors/ attendees at tech education conference, regional mailing list of tech comm educators Online survey
Brumberger & Lauer 2015 To examine current range of skills, competencies, products, and traits requested of technical communicators in the workplace 1,500 job ads Collected job ads from over a 2-month period; selected 1,500 that emphasized rhetorically informed writing, communication, and design skills. Open coding content analysis of job descriptions to identify professional competencies and personal characteristics.
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 100 entry-level jobs descriptions
Gathered at two time-points, 18 months apart
10 interviews of industry leaders
Job descriptions from the Public Relations Society of America Jobcenter database (randomly selected) and structured interviews of industry leaders Interview guide developed iteratively based on literature and previous conversations with participants Analysis clustered various skills and attributes into five groups – communication, social media, critical thinking, interpersonal, and time management
Chopra et al 2018 To show how text and graph mining are useful methods to understand employer expectations. Co-op job descriptions (sample analysis–no data gathered) None (article is a discussion of methods) Text and graph mining See discussion above


  • 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: 10.1080/10572252.2014.941766
  • 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 Learning 19 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.

Julia Bleakney is director of The Writing Center in the Center for Writing Excellence and assistant professor of English 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:

Bleakney, Julia. 2020, January 9. How do researchers access employers for their studies of workplace writing? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from