Research supports the idea that employers seek new employees with strong written and oral communication skills; however, I suspect that like the educational buzzword, “Critical thinking,” people don’t actually know what good “Communication Skills” mean.
When I was in college, I had to take two required Communication courses. One was a public speaking class whose main function was to rid my classmates of their Bronx and Brooklyn accents. Since that was not something I struggled with, I had an odd sort of “mid-Atlantic” non-specific accent, I did well in the class even though I wrote my speeches on the bus traveling back to New York, after having spent my weekend with my boyfriend in Philadelphia. I have almost no memory of the second class except that it was a large lecture class, held in a nondescript lecture hall. The only other thing I remember is the final exam that asked one question; “How do we know if we actually communicate with anyone?”
In those days, we handwrote our exams in blue books with odd thinish paper. We had three hours to write this exam. I looked at the question and was kind of flummoxed. I had no idea how I would create an answer that would take me three hours to write.
What I wrote was essentially this: “We do not know, and have no real way of knowing if we communicate with someone else. We have to take communication on faith. It is fairly safe to assume that if we ask someone to shut the door, and they do it, we are communicating with them. However, their act of shutting the door could, in fact, be unrelated to the fact that we asked them to shut the door. We simply have to take it on faith that we communicate when we say something to someone and they respond in what appears to be an appropriate manner.”
I think that answer is fairly glib, but I did get an A in the class. I referred to no communication theory in my answer, and in fact, I have no memory of studying any theory in the class at all. I would say that neither of my Communications classes was a high point of my education.
So, what are employers asking for? Are they using “Communication Skills” as a short-hand for something else? Clearly, employees need to be able to speak well, to ask good questions, to understand directions and to be courteous. If the job requires it, they need to be able to put together a logical, complete sentence. They need to be able to adjust to the cultural climate of the job. Do all of these attributes get lumped into “Communication Skills”? Should they be?
I look at my students and wonder how many of them can figure out how to negotiate the work world. Some obviously can, and they are the students who figured out how to negotiate the elementary school playground, the junior high lunch room and the high school college application process. The students who will do well in the work world are the students who come to see me if they have questions about an assignment, or who email me that they will not be in class.
While all of these skills could be lumped into “Communication Skills,” I wonder how many of them can be taught. I wonder if Communications courses at the college level are the way to go about helping students acquire the many skills they need to be good communicators, because really, when it comes down to it, employers do not want someone who takes good communication on faith, but rather they want someone who is confident, flexible and articulate. They want someone who isn’t cowed or intimidated, as well as someone who is empathetic and thoughtful. All of these can be lumped into Communications, but can they all be taught?