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An article came across my desk last week that put a twinkle in my eye and a profoundly satisfying I told you so on my lips. Titled ‘Revenge of the Liberal Arts Major’, the article was about a recent survey of the recruitment intentions of 225 employers in the United States. The article opened with: ‘If you’re in college, or happen to be about to graduate, and you’ve been mocked for getting a liberal arts degree, here’s a piece of welcome news: You’re actually in more demand than those who are getting finance and accounting degrees’.
The report found that 98% of employers were looking for communication skills in recruits. Over 90% said that communication skills were the most difficult attributes to secure.
After the initial warm glow of hobby horse affirmation dimmed, what struck me most about this piece of ‘news’ is how damnably obvious it is. Of course people need to be effective communicators. Of course they need to be able to write well, which means writing fluently, coherently and persuasively.
Why, then, do we persist with our fatuous denigration of the degrees that are most likely to inculcate communication skills? Such denigration ranges from jokes of the ‘would you like fries with that?’ variety to snickering about the comparatively low entrance scores required for Arts degrees. It’s also present in the value-laden distinction between ‘soft’ skills (of which communication is one) and ‘hard’ skills.
At the heart of this, I suspect, is a belief that ‘communication skills’ are not all that difficult to acquire. It is as if they are an adjunct to ‘real skills’ like bookkeeping or bridge design that can casually be acquired, almost by osmosis, along the way. This assumption is bullshit of the first and smelliest order. After twenty-two years in the workforce and having managed hundreds of people, I’ve worked with a surprisingly small number who could write really well. By this I mean they could digest fat wads of disparate information, sniff out what was credible, discard the dross, distil the essence and repackage it all into a coherent, logical argument. Of those staff members, most have held Arts degrees.
At one time I was half-jokingly accused of running a sheltered workshop for Arts graduates. I did so unapologetically because despite whatever else you might bring to the table, if you can’t write, you’re no good to me. Picture this situation: you’re working to tight, merciless deadlines in a politically sensitive environment. Your staff are beavering away at producing briefs. The briefs land on your desk at 2pm and have to be turned around by 5. You begin to read, and there it is: that familiar sinking feeling about how late you’re going to have to work to turn this incoherent mush into tight, convincing prose.
The people who have produced the mush are often highly skilled, highly educated people who are light years away from stupid. They are economists who can chew up numbers and turn them into trends and lawyers who can kick a policy from here to the tea room for being ultra vires. But if they can’t communicate that in writing, they’ve only done half the job. Sometimes, when I delicately attempt to point this out I’m brushed off with ‘Well, just get an editor to look over it’ – as if it is not part of their job to drag the argument out of the word-jumble in which it has been lost.
I’ve instituted a recruitment practice designed to test a candidate’s writing skills before they get anywhere near a contract. All candidates are required to bring a piece of their writing to the interview. If they are called back for a second interview, they are given an exercise in which they have to produce a written briefing note within one hour. Our HR department humour me in this, as if it’s a quaint whim of mine.
It’s not. It’s a calculated exercise in time-saving. My time. I’m yet to see a job description that doesn’t have ‘communication skills’ as an essential criterion. It’s one of those ubiquitous terms that by dint of repetition has lost all its meaning. Let’s cut to the chase and instil ‘Arts degree’ as an essential employment criterion instead.
S.A. Jones is a Killings columnist, and the author of the novel Red Dress Walking and of numerous essays.