Published in the January 31, 2014 Santa Maria Times.

Tests going back to 1998 tell the same story—American students at all levels are seriously deficient in writing skills. Only 3 percent possess advanced or superior abilities when it comes to writing.

This is no surprise to a writing instructor. For almost two decades I have seen students coming into my English classes at Allan Hancock College needing a great deal of assistance in everything from basic sentence structure to writing a thesis.

Not that they can’t learn. I have witnessed students make enormous improvements in how well they can write in only a semester, sometimes less. One student recently shared with me that he was told by another instructor, “Your writing has improved tremendously,” while he was still in the process of taking my English 103 class.

While success stories like this are heartening, the reality is sobering, as the lack of writing ability is now showing up in the workplace.

Employers are encountering job candidates, often with advanced degrees, who cannot write clearly or effectively. As a result, jobs are going unfilled and companies are spending as much as $3 billion per year to bring employees’ writing to an acceptable level.

How important is writing in the 2014 workplace and job market? According to studies, 50 percent of all companies take writing into consideration when hiring. Sheri Griffiths, a local firm’s senior branch manager, said candidates with good writing skills will generally qualify for higher-paying and more responsible positions.

Evaluation of a job seeker’s writing begins with their resume and cover letter.

“Their first impression of you is a written document,” said Ida Motta, a local business staffing consultant. “This can make the difference between getting a call to interview or not.”

Along with this, more companies are requiring a writing sample from job seekers, not only to assess their writing but also to determine how well they can organize their thoughts and share ideas.

What can be done to reverse the downward trend?

In 2003, the National Commission on Writing In America’s Schools and Colleges, after an exhaustive study, called for a “writing revolution” in our educational system. The commission called for a renewed emphasis on writing, beginning in the lower grades and continuing through high school and college. Teachers needed to be given more training in teaching writing, and students needed to be given more opportunities to write.

Since then, other studies, such as the Nation’s Report Card for 2011, have reached the same conclusion – students’ writing skills are in decline at a time when they are needed more than ever before in the working world. An emphasis on writing needs to return to the classroom.

For students to improve their writing, they first of all must write more than they do now, and preferably about a subject that interests them.

“Good writing comes from the heart,” as one student recently put it.

Their work must be read, graded and returned for rewriting, a process that may have to be repeated several times.

The decline in writing skills can be turned around. But it will take commitment, hard work and an acknowledgement on the part of educators and students of how important writing is in today’s world.

“Even though those essays gave me headaches, I actually learned how to love this,” another student wrote.

Hopefully, that love of writing is something she can take with her in whatever career she chooses.

Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA

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