Communication Skills in the Workplace Employers Talk Back
By Nancy Martin-Young Wake Technical Community College
|Editor’s Note: The following article was prepared from a speech presented by Nancy Martin-Young at the 1995 CEI Fall Conference, October 23, 1995. The article is reprinted from the March 1996 issue of the CEI Newsletter. Instructors may wish to use this document to motivate their students to develop effective communication skills.|
Fifteen years ago, the typical college graduate looked forward to a 9 to 5 job with a detailed job description. That employee expected a long work history with the same employer and a pension waiting upon retirement. Today, business and industry are downsizing and reengineering. Businesses are trying to increase productivity while decreasing costs, so many U. S. companies are shrinking staffs. One worker now does the work of many. Middle management is shrinking, as is the assembly line mentality, which has been replaced by JIT (Just In Time product management). Job descriptions today are flexible. And with the tremendous changes occurring in technology, employees are constantly required to gain new skills to keep up. Most companies have training programs; for example, Robin Suess, the Human Resources Manager at IBM in Raleigh, reports that IBM spends over $6 million on education by using local programs and universities in the Triangle. Companies with limited time and finances for training turn to us, the educators, to help train employees in the skills they need to obtain and maintain employment.In 1950, the majority of jobs (60%) were for unskilled workers—those with a high school diploma or less. Skilled workers comprised another 20% of the labor market demand, and the professional category made up the last 20%. By 1991, we can see a shift. The professional category remained consistent at 20% of the workplace demand. But skilled workers, those requiring less than a baccalaureate degree but more than a high school degree, climbed to 45% of the labor market. Predictions for the year 2000 show this trend continuing: 65% of the labor market will be for skilled workers. So all students, especially the 75% who will not go on to a 4-year degree, need training.Today business and industry leaders are looking for specific skills in entry-level employees. The current workplace trend in education helps to teach those skills, based on the competencies established for all workers by the U.S. Department of Labor. In particular, today’s workers need communication skills: oral, written, and technological.We can trace the current emphasis on education’s responsibility to train students for the workplace to the 1980’s. Think back to that decade. America was rebounding from an economic slump. Competition with other countries was reflected in slogans like “buy American” and movies like Gung Ho. A disturbing series of reports on weak workplace skills grabbed the attention of educators and the government. One of the first reports of that decade, as explained by a recent article by Donovan and Schneider in Technology and Learning, was the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk. In 1984, a report called The Unfinished Agenda was published by the National Commission on Secondary Vocational Education. That report proposed reform that involved both theory and application. It also called for an assurance of workplace relevance in academic courses. Another book with a big impact came out in 1985, when Parnell published The Neglected Majority. This book spotlights the plight of the ignored majority of high school students who are headed neither for college nor for vocational training. In his book, Parnell proposes the “2 + 2” approach: 2 years of specialized high school training and 2 years in a Tech Prep Associate’s degree program (TPAD). By the late 1980’s 34 state representatives reported establishing a TPAD system. But the 2 + 2 approach was not widely implemented. In 1989, George Bush and the state governors agreed to educational reform goals. In April 1991, Bush called for World Class Standards in Education the America 2000 program, readying the American workplace for the next century. The U.S. Department of Labor, through the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, gathered data from employers across the nation and published lists of competencies and basic skills required of all workers (SCANS Report—fig. 1 & 2). Eventually, legislatures passed laws to award grant money to schools so they could implement the 2 + 2 approach.Schools need input from the workplace in order to develop articulation agreements with business and industry and to establish curricula designed to create a skilled workforce. To insure the changes are carried out, school administrators must also secure the cooperation of the instructors, as pointed out in a recent article by Bragg and Layton in the Community College Review: “No educational reform effort can succeed if it does not have the backing of those who will implement it.” Departmental personnel should be the ones to generate and evaluate competencies and to keep control over course content, using industry consultants as catalysts for change. If instructors are given this responsibility, they need to be informed about competency-based education, the article continues.But what do business leaders have to say about necessary skills? I spent summer and fall 1995 finding out. I interviewed twenty employers in the Raleigh-Durham area, all representing one of the technical clusters we offer at Wake Tech: business management, engineering technology, environmental and life science, human and social services, industrial technology, marketing, and medical/health. I spoke mostly with human resource managers, but also with site managers, vice presidents, recruiters, communications experts, department heads, and technicians to identify the communication skills and technical skills entry-level workers need. The results of these interviews also mirror national trends reported in business and trade magazines.
THREE MAIN SKILLS
Employers highlighted three skills needed by all workers: teamwork, flexibility, and communication. Since many workplaces are currently organized according to a matrix system, an employee no longer has a specific job. Instead, his or her skills—especially in graphics, computers, or oral presentations—make the worker a valued member of a team. These three skills are essential for the matrix worker, since he or she must work well with others and be able to switch easily from team to team, depending on the project. Several companies stressed another employment factor: good attendance. Some companies I visited had very strict attendance policies. Tipper Tie in Apex, NC, which makes the aluminum clips that seal bags of poultry, states that any employee in a 30-day period who is absent three days, tardy three days, or any combination, is fired. Absences require a doctor’s excuse. The Capital City Club, an upscale private restaurant, fires any employee who fails to show for three shifts. Some employers stressed repeatedly that weak attendance policies in school are not helping to train workers for the reality of work policies. A final quality many stressed was a positive attitude in the interview and on the job. Most would not hire an applicant who lacked enthusiasm.
Oral communication is the mode of choice in most workplaces today; the paper memo is dead, replaced by voice mail, informal conversation, and sometimes E-mail or fax-mail. But two writing tasks still loom before the entry level worker: Writing reports and filling out forms. For example, many companies these days are seeking certification in a variety of world class standard programs, like ISO or QS 9000, an automotive quality certification. These certifications require extensive documentation. Workers have to fill out reports that ask them to describe exactly what they do and how they do it.The service industries also fill out countless reports, such as service orders, patient care reports, and lab reports. Some entry-level employees, like administrative assistants, may be responsible for compiling or even composing some parts of a formal report. The smaller the company, the more likely that an administrative assistant may be asked to do such tasks. Some companies also like to “grow their own” managers by extending such responsibilities to entry-level personnel, encouraging them to accept the challenge. At Atcom, a business telephone company, the HR says that 98% of her employees are promoted.
More often, the manager or executive will write the formal reports on finances and planning. We have to remember that when our students are in our classes, they are not just learning the skills they need for their first job. They are gaining skills for a career. A clear, concise technical writing style will always be an asset.
We can see that employees still need written communication skills. Yet interpersonal oral communication skills are the ones most prized by employers in the new informal workplace atmosphere. Some employers, like Raychem, even test technicians in their ability to follow oral directions. Employees who work with the public or closely with teams need skills in empathy and feedback techniques, especially in fields such as customer service, criminal justice, medical, and legal. Critical thinking and the ability to function as part of a problem-solving group are also skills that employers look for. At IBM, for instance, the team members have to sell their ideas to management to receive funding. At Buehler Products, engineers, technicians, and even hourly employees make formal presentations to high-level executives. Today’s worker must remain cool under pressure, adaptable to new technology and to a fast pace.Many employers talk about the importance of “fitting in”; in fact, Dr. David Day, a Penn State psychologist, is quoted by Psychology Today as saying that there are practical implications for fitting in: “If there are mismatches, productivity suffers.” If a team must deliver solutions, the members must be able to function effectively, relying on interpersonal communication skills to get the job done. Some companies even test employees to see if they will fit in and work within policies. Capital City Club uses the Interact Series to test applicants. Many companies use personality tests with managers and supervisors. The Cary Police Department, for example, uses the Myers-Briggs with supervisors. McLaurin Parking uses the Reid test to check for leniency tendencies.Simple conversational skills are also important in the workplace. Some employers mention telephone etiquette as an important skill. The same annoyances we suffer from poor voice mail messages are cited by employers, who hate to waste time tracking down a telephone number to return a message.The ability to interview to get important information is also a necessary skill. Service people must interview clients to write a work order. Legal secretaries who work for small firms often must interview witnesses. Police officers gather details of crime, medical office personnel collect information on insurance, and incorrect information may lead to trouble or even litigation later on.Entry-level employees are likely to deliver at least some formal presentations. The most typical is leading tours. Often this task of leading around groups of Cub Scouts or teachers falls to those lower on the roster, although executives will lead tours for visiting dignitaries. Even large group presentations are required of some entry-level people. Rookie police officers are assigned DARE and Community Watch presentations. They will also have to testify in court. A legal secretary may have to ask for a continuance in a courtroom if an attorney is detained across town. An administrative assistant is likely to serve as a greeter and introduce speakers at formal functions.We also must remember that workers join civic and professional organizations, like CEI, where they are asked more often to participate in formal presentations. And once again, we must remember that we are not just preparing our students for their first job. We need to give them the oral presentation skills they need to rise to management, where they will make formal presentations on finance, for instance, or regularly conduct meetings. (The average executive spends 500 hours a year in meetings.)Oral presentation skills lead to promotions. At Buehler Products, those willing to present proposals or recommend strategies are those who are positioned for advancement. The HR there tells of a junior engineer he hired. In five years, that worker had risen to production engineering manager. How? He floated to the top because he demonstrated effective communication skills, he stayed cool under pressure, and he delivered strong presentations. He earned an extra $25,000 a year because of his communication skills. At a local bank, managers noticed that a particular teller was exceptionally good at explaining policies to customers, who often requested her. She was promoted to trainer and a position that provided an extra $10,000 a year and her own office upstairs. Communication skills are essential for promotion. At the Cary Police Department, officers who do not develop communication skills remain officers instead of moving up.
Written and oral communication skills are very important in today’s high-powered workplace, but employees must also be able to use modern technology to communicate. The technologies most often used for communication are voice mail, E-mail, fax, and word processing. The employers surveyed preferred the Microsoft 3-pack of Excel, Word, and PowerPoint, a preference that seems to mirror national trends. Business use of CD-ROM and Internet is more restricted; in many companies, only certain workstations have access to the Internet. The assumption is that employees may waste time surfing. Some industries, such as automotive, store specifications on CD-ROM. The medical and legal field also retrieve data from ROM, so students in these programs need to be comfortable with CD-ROM technology.
INTERVIEW AND RESUME PREFERENCES
Although workers need to develop skills in communication and technology, obtaining the job is the first hurdle. And the process of getting a job is grueling. Competition is stiff. Of course, in the Research Triangle, the competition is even stiffer than national statistics indicate. Some employers I spoke with reported getting as many as 300 applications for a single position. The Cary Police Department reported 360 for one advertised position. With so many applicants to choose from, employers use a variety of methods for narrowing the field. One method is scanning resumes. Of the employers with whom I spoke, only IBM computer-scans resumes; the practice is not yet widespread. But several harried recruiters dream of the capability. Almost all the recruiters interviewed resort to “eye scanning” a resume, skimming it to find the key words related to the position and power words that indicate the applicant is capable and hardworking—words like “adaptable, innovative, problem solving,” and skills like “oral communication, ability to delegate.” The managers in a hurry want one-page resumes. Recruiters and personnel managers also have preferences about paper, format, even font.Most employers with a paper preference like cream, gray, or white. The more conservative the industry, the more conservative the paper. Manufacturing seems to prefer white; banking, beige. All notice a high quality paper, and all discard error-laden resumes. These employers want to be able to pick out an applicant’s qualifications and experience at a glance, so they like bullets, boldfacing, and lists. They want to see month and year for employment histories, because they sniff out gaps like a hound sniffs a dead squirrel. They expect the resume to have a professional appearance, with a balanced layout, good use of white space, and graphic elements. A word of caution: graphic elements will not work if a resume is computer scanned. Usually an ad will specify a computer-scannable resume if one is required. Employers also want an easily readable font, not a fancy script. Some who expressed a preference liked Helvetica or Arial, an open, sans serif font. Another font employers mentioned is Times or Times New Roman.If the resume is lucky enough to be among the few selected, the next step is the interview. But for many, the first interview is not in the office. Employers now often try to reduce the list of candidates further by conducting telephone interviews. They note the applicant’s ability to discuss education, job history, and current interests on the telephone. Those who cannot remember specifics are not invited for a formal interview. Neither are those who sound sleepy at ten a.m. The telephone interview may also screen out applicants with accents. Some employers did not want a person with a country accent greeting customers or answering a phone. Others went out of their way to discuss ESL accents. One hospital administrator said of a candidate, “If I can’t understand her, and I’m listening as hard as I can, what will a semiconscious patient do?”The applicant who survives the telephone interview still faces a challenge. The formal interview really begins as soon as the applicant arrives at the site. His or her actions may be noted even out in the parking lot. Almost assuredly, the way the applicant acts in the waiting room will be reported to the interviewer. Interviewers frequently sneak out, ostensibly for a cup of coffee, to scope out the applicant unobserved. In fact, the interviewer may even be substituting at the reception desk. The Human Resource Manager at Stream, Inc., a division of RR Donnelley, often fills in at the desk, so applicants check in with the very person who will offer them the job. She once was torn between two applicants and asked the receptionist her opinion. One had a snobby attitude in the waiting room, and one was pleasant but professional. Guess which one was hired?Most recruiters size up the applicant very early in the interview. Appearance does matter. Even in casual workplaces, applicants are expected to look professional. For men, that generally means a suit and tie, or perhaps for some technician positions, pressed slacks and shirt and tie. For women, a suit is generally appropriate, although dresses and even tailored slacks are acceptable. Women and men are cautioned against lots of jewelry or trendy looks. Many employers dislike long hair on men. Heavy makeup and strong perfume or cologne can also be problems. Moderation in style and color are safe choices.The typical interview process is around two or three hours long—even for an entry-level position. The HR person may initially interview the applicant for thirty minutes, discussing qualifications and explaining the job. Then, if the applicant is still in the running, department heads may take a turn interviewing the applicant. A panel of people may even be lined up to grill him or her. Finally, in this age of teamwork, the team the applicant will be joining often gets a chance to talk with the applicant to see if he or she will fit in with the team. These possibilities are just the typical interview scenarios. Teleconference interviews happen occasionally. Horror stories exist of all-day Saturday sessions for prospective technicians, where they are given puzzles and scenario questions to work out individually or as a team. They might be asked to plan what they would need to keep from a shipwreck if they were stranded on a desert island, or they might be asked what they would do if a coworker took credit for an idea they had originated. Applicants are judged on their ability to think on their feet.Employers interviewed also provided examples of questions they frequently ask in interviews. These questions are designed to explore educational background and work experience, certainly. But today’s HR manager is also interested in discovering the style of management the employee responds best to. That is the reason behind the question, “Which manager did you like best?” Personal attributes like flexibility and enthusiasm count, too. Employers do not like to have to coax people into talking about the job.Employers sometimes set traps for unwary interviewees. Too often, the unsuspecting applicant is lured into criticizing past employers or supervisors by innocent-seeming questions like “Which supervisor did you like best? Least?” HR people encourage applicants to spill their guts and are often adept at drawing out confidences—the very confidences that may cost them the position. One recruiter asks, “How would your supervisor describe you?” She then calls the supervisor and compares notes. Applicants should also be cautious not to appear nosy about the interviewer. Some recruiters mentioned that they do not like the applicant to look at their photos or look at things on their desk.If the applicant manages to survive the interview, all is not secure yet. Most HR managers all attend the same conferences and know each other well. An applicant who is “interviewing around” is likely to interview with several companies in the area. HR people will call other interviewers for their opinions. HR people dislike applicants who take over the interview. Since interviewers are often bothered by specific questions about benefits and salary, applicants should be cautioned against asking such questions—at least until they have been offered the job. But interviewers do like the applicant to ask some questions. Questions show interest. The questions should be related to the specific duties that go with the position. Employers usually give an edge to applicants who have researched the company, to applicants who write follow-up letters after an interview, and to applicants who ask for the job.Applicants may not even get to go through the process for many positions. More often these days, companies hire temporary workers. The temporary agency takes care of testing the applicants and insuring that they are qualified. The company then tries them out in a position, and hires only those who perform best.Considering how difficult the interview process is, it is amazing anyone is ever offered a job. Yet unemployment in our area is very low (hovering at 3.4%), and companies are actively seeking the right kind of worker. That worker is the one with the necessary skills—skills in oral communication, written communication, and teamwork. These are skills that we English instructors teach. They are the skills our students need to obtain a job and to move up. They are skills for a lifetime.
(Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills)
U. S. Department of Labor
Resources: Identifies, organizes, plans, and allocates resources
- Time—selects goal-relevant activities, ranks them, allocates time, and prepares and follows schedules
- Money—uses or prepares budgets, makes forecasts, keeps records, and makes adjustments to meet objectives
- Material and Facilities—acquires, stores, allocates, and uses materials or space efficiently
- Resources—assesses skills and distributes work accordingly, evaluates performance, and provides feedback
Interpersonal: Works with others
- Participates as Member of a Team—contributes to group effort
- Teaches Others New Skills
- Serves Clients/Customers—works to satisfy customers’ expectations
- Exercises Leadership—communicates ideas to justify positions, persuades and convinces others, responsibly challenges existing procedures and policies
- Negotiates—works toward agreements involving exchange of resources, resolves divergent interests
- Works with Diversity—works well with men and women from diverse backgrounds
Information: Acquires and uses information
- Acquires and Evaluates Information
- Organizes and Maintains Information
- Interprets and Communicates Information
- Uses Computers to Process Information
Systems: Understands complex interrelationships
- Understands Systems—knows how social, organizational, and technological systems work and operates effectively with them
- Monitors and Corrects Performance—distinguishes trends, predicts impacts on systems operations, diagnoses deviations in systems’ performance, and corrects malfunctions
- Improves or Designs Systems—suggests modifications to existing systems and develops new and alternative systems to improve performance
Technology: Works with a variety of technologies
- Selects Technology—chooses procedures, tools or equipment including computers and related technologies
- Applies Technology to Task—understands overall intent and proper procedures for setup and operation of equipment
- Maintains and Troubleshoots Equipment—prevents, identifies, or solves problems with equipment, including computers and other technologies
Figure 2: A THREE-PART FOUNDATlON
(from the SCANS Report)
Personal Qualities: Displays responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, integrity and honesty
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