Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Communication Breakdown

The ball & chain pointed me to an interesting article on how crappy writing skills are among gubmint workers. Here's the opener:

States spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year on remedial writing instruction for their employees, according to a new report that says the indirect costs of sloppy writing probably hurt taxpayers even more.

The National Commission on Writing, in a report to be released Tuesday, says that good writing skills are at least as important in the public sector as in private industry. Poor writing not only befuddles citizens but also slows down the government as bureaucrats struggle with unclear instructions or have to redo poorly written work.

Remedial writing instruction, folks. Not advanced writing instruction, not essential writing instruction, remedial. I absolutely agree with the findings of the report (which can be read in full here), and there are indeed many factors contributing to this problem, but I wish they had addressed this obvious point: despite the fact that government employers value writing skills even more highly than their counterparts in the private sector, they keep hiring people whose writing skills are so poor that they have to be sent back to school to relearn it. Yes, of course this is primarily an issue of education, but don't let the HR folks off the hook that easy.

Look at any job listing for an office-type job (i.e., at a computer for at least part of the day) and you're almost assured of seeing "Ability to communicate in writing" as a requirement. How many of these listings say that a writing sample is required, or that a writing test will be administered? Just about none. Some employers say that they carefully examine cover letters and resumes for writing quality, but that’s not nearly enough; anyone can swipe a well-written template off the internet and just plug in their info, or they can drop a few dollars and have a pro help them clean it up.

Here's my outrageous suggestion. If you really mean it when you say in your job listing that writing is important, then administer a writing test to each applicant. If you expect a lot of resumes, it's probably best to wait until you've narrowed it down to just a few folks (a good portion of potential applicants will weed themselves out because they don't want to deal with a writing test). It doesn't have to be long, just get them to write a paragraph or two. Don't have them write about something too mushy, like "Why I love apple pie." Make it concrete, such as "Explain how to make a BLT sammich." Remember that you’re not really trying to find out how to make the most delicious BLT; you want to know if the applicant can write clearly and concisely (lordy, PLEASE check for concision).


Thrillhous said...

Sorry about the lousy formatting, guys. I don't know how I messed it up, and I haven't been able to fix it.

Oh, the irony.

Studiodave said...

Hous, in spite of writing skills my career is the perfect foil for your article.

I'll have you know that I am currently at the pinnacle of a mediocre career.

That squirrel stole my ham!

Thrillhous said...

We all know you've gotten this far on looks and raw intellectual prowess.

Mrs_Thrillhous said...

Dearheart, the problem with a writing test is that someone has to be able to evaluate it.