Betsy Stevens firstname.lastname@example.org is an Associate Professor, Managerial Communication, Love School of Business, Elon University.
One hundred and four Silicon Valley employers responded to a survey asking them to rate their satisfaction levels with the communication skills of their recent college graduate new hires. Employers reported they were less than satisfied with the oral and written communication skills and noted a number of areas needing improvement. More employers recommended improving students’ oral communication skills, particularly in the use of vocabulary and self–expression. They reported that college graduates’ skills are not always adequate to perform the tasks required on the job. Open ended comments from employers reveal a need for stronger writing skills, more training on professional uses of e-mail, and additional teaching on how to express oneself more professionally and and avoid the use of slang.
While communication skills are critical skills for success in business (Hynes & Bhatia 50), they will play an even more important role as technology increases the speed and efficacy of messages. Indeed, Locker and Kaczmarek’s analysis of a study by the U.S. Department of Labor regarding workplace skills for the future determined that communication skills are essential workplace tools for the 21st century (5). They have been correlated with career success and increased financial rewards (Fisher 244), and business school alumni have ranked communication courses as the most important courses that led to their advancement and promotions (Murphy & Hildebrandt 9, Gustafson, Johnson and Hovey 35, Hinkin 1). Recent business communication studies cite the numerous hours managers spend communicating with others (Krizan, Merrier and Jones 3), the time managers devote to writing correspondence and reports (Ober 5), and their ability to earn higher salaries if they have strong writing skills (Fisher 244). The value of strong business communication skills is clearly documented in these and other studies.
The question of whether business school graduates have the necessary communication competencies for the information age is both an interesting and complex question. As research shows that people employed in business require strong speaking and writing skills to manage multi-faceted and rapidly changing environments, business schools must be prepared to answer several key questions such as: (1) Do graduating students have sufficient competencies in communication to face the unique situations where they must react quickly and with certainty? (2) Do the graduates lack any skills or competencies which may require additional education or practice ?, and (3) Are today’s employers satisfied with the communication skills of their new hire college graduates? Answers to these questions will help business communication professors understand the strengths and weaknesses of their programs and better educate the young managers who must work in a fast-paced, high tech environment.
Interestingly, the claims that students need to improve their oral and written business communication skills are largely anecdotal. Business school deans return from meetings with corporate executives where complaints are lodged that the graduates cannot write well. Even deans and senior faculty members at top-rated business schools hear this complaint regularly from industry. Faculty members complain that student reports are poorly written. However, a systematic search through the Business Communication Quarterly, The Journal of Business Communication, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Management Communication Quarterly from 1990-2002 yielded very few studies of business and industry perceptions of their new hires’ communication skills. Indeed, business communication journals have seemingly moved away from examining employers’ needs.
Plutsky (75) analyzed faculty perceptions of required skills, finding that faculty perceived students as having difficulty with both basic writing and sophisticated writing concepts and techniques. Professors evaluate students’ writing frequently and are close to the source; however, their perceptions of what is important may differ from supervisors in the employment setting.
Business schools need to be attuned to their employer constituencies. In terms of industry perceptions, Maes, Weldy and Icenogle (67) surveyed Gulf Coast area employers and found that they valued oral communication skills over written skills for entry-level positions. Other than these studies and a few employer satisfaction surveys reported in educational journals such as the Journal of Employment Counseling and the Journal of Education for Business in the 1980’s, very few recent studies have explored the area of employer satisfaction.
As scholars in the field of business communication have not devoted much research in the 1990’s to assessing the quality of business school graduates’ communication skills and the perceptions of stakeholders—the people who hire business school graduates, a need for this type of industry-focused research exists. Business schools need to communicate with their constituencies and ask their key employers if their graduates’ communication skills are sufficient and identify those area needed improvement. Electronic communication calls for high levels of writing skills and the ability to communicate precisely.
High tech areas like Silicon Valley in northern California, where phrases such as “24/7” reflect the frenzied style of life, value strong communication skills despite the emphasis there on technology. Advertisements for managers and executives in the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle consistently request excellent oral and written communication skills, a phenomena seen in other employment advertisements across the country (Guffey 6). Silicon Valley is home to 3,000 high tech firms and San Jose, the center of Silicon Valley, has over 910,000 people, including a considerable Hispanic population and the largest group of Vietnamese emigrants outside of Vietnam. Fifteen hundred of the nation’s largest electronic firms are headquartered in Silicon Valley and in 1997, San Jose was rated fifth in the number of patents issued worldwide, ranking below the U.S., Japan, the entire state of California and Germany, but above France, the United Kingdom and Canada (http://www.ci.san-jose.ca.usa/about.html).
Despite the economic troubles experienced by high tech industries in the past few years when numerous dot-com companies lost millions of dollars in venture capital funds, Silicon Valley remains an economic hothouse of high tech development and innovation, and it continues to be the most expensive place to work and to live in the United States. (Kwan, 2001, 33S). Therefore, perceptions of its employers regarding their employees’ communications skills are important.
High tech areas like Silicon Valley exert a strong economic influence on the rest of the nation and employ large numbers of people, many of whom are recent graduates in business and engineering. As a result, the perceptions of Silicon Valley employers regarding their employees’ communication skills is an important measure of what is needed in the high tech marketplaces. This is why this study to determine the satisfaction levels of these employers with the writing and speaking skills of their college graduate new hires was undertaken. A short survey comprised of three questions that asked respondents to assign numerical ratings for communication skills satisfaction, followed by two open-ended questions to identify additional business communication skills desired by the employers, was created.
A one-page survey was created to determine the degree of employer satisfaction with business communication skills of their newly-hired recent college graduate. The survey consisted of three questions using a five point Likert-type rating scale and two open-ended questions. Because surveys typically have a low response rate (Bouroque and Fielder, 30), it was kept brief to encourage greater participation A pretest using six student respondents indicated that the questionnaire could be completed in two to three minutes.
These questionnaires were distributed to recruiting employers at the Fall, 2000 and Spring, 2001 state university career fairs and collected by student assistants the same day. Lists were cross-checked to ensure that firms were not surveyed twice. One-hundred and four usable surveys were obtained.
The area from which the population was drawn, Santa Clara County, has over has over 45,000 employers. The five largest employers in the City of San Jose are Santa Clara County, Cisco Systems, the City of San Jose, IBM and Cisco. These five firms employed 47, 560 people in 2002. (http://censtats.census.gov/cgi-bin/cbpnaic/cbpsect.pl). The five large high-tech companies in the area, Cisco Systems, IBM, Hitachi, Agilent Technologies and Xilinix, employ 28,180 men and women altogether. Companies located in San Jose include 25 percent goods-producers (machines, computers and peripheral equipment, semi-conductors and electronic instruments) and 75 percent service-producers (transportation, utilities, financial services, business and professional services, hotel and schools). Attendees at the 2001 and 2002 career fairs included 41% high tech companies (both manufacturing and administrative sectors), 49 percent service-producers (banks, auditors, financial services, transportation) and 10 percent non-profit organizations (county social services, private non-profits). School systems were not included because they are served by a separate recruiting process at the university.
Although some companies voluntarily identified themselves by attaching business cards to the survey, the questionnaire was designed for anonymous responses in order to collect unbiased answers. As guests of the career fair, company respondents might have been reluctant to criticize the students’ skills, so the identity of the respondent was not requested. Therefore, an exact breakdown of respondents by type of industry is not available for this study.
Results were entered into an Excel spreadsheet and descriptive statistics, including means and standards deviations, were calculated. A content analysis of the two open-ended questions was performed by two trained raters, who practiced on a set of responses from a different study prior to rating the responses in this survey. Surveys were first analyzed to determine whether respondents’ comments could be categorized as addressing either oral or written communication issues. A third category for suggestions on improving both oral and written skills was created when the respondents’ comments were equally divided. Next, subcategories were created by observing the frequency of topics among responses. Then each survey was read and analyzed for content by both raters. The rate of agreement was 93 percent. Content analysis was selected because it helps to understand data as symbolic phenomena, is useful as it lends itself well to examining language in written documents, (Krippendorf 20) and provided the necessary flexibility for this study.
The first question asked was “How satisfied are you with the business communication skills (speaking, writing, interpersonal) of your recent college graduate new hires?” A five point Likert-type scale (5=very satisfied, 4=satisfied, 3=neutral, 2=dissatisfied and 1=very dissatisfied) was used. All 104 respondents answered this question with a mean of 3.71 and SD (standard deviation) of .88. (See below.)
|Rating||Number of Respondents|
|(5) Very satisfied||15|
|(1) Very dissatisfied||1|
N = 104
Mean = 3.71
Standard Deviation (SD) = .88
Question two asked “How satisfied are you that your recent new hire college graduates have sufficient writing skills to perform the tasks required by their positions?” The same five-point Likert-type scale was used. One hundred respondents answered the question with a mean of 3.70 and a SD of .81. (See below.)
|Rating||Number of Respondents|
|(5) Very satisfied||14|
|(1) Very dissatisfied||0|
N = 104
Mean = 3.70
SD = .81
Question three focused specifically on the state university graduates asking “On a scale of 1-5, rate the business writing skills of your recent state university new hires. (5=very strong, 4=strong, 3=neutral, 2=weak, 1=very weak). “Don’t know” was also included as an optional response. Sixty four respondents answered the question with a mean of 3.37 and SD of .84; 31 checked “don’t know” or wrote “N/A” (not applicable), indicating that they had not recently hired a SJSU graduate. (See below.)
Employer Ratings Of SJSU Graduates' Communications Skills
|Rating||Number of Respondents|
|(1) Very Weak||2|
|Don't know or NA||31|
N = 95
Mean = 3.37
SD = .84
In response to the fourth question, “ What additional business communication skills would you like to see in your recent college graduate new hires,” seventy four employers wrote comments, and four checked “Don’t know.” Table four illustrates responses to this first open-ended question. Question five asked “What additional business communication skills would you like to see in your recent state university College of Business new hires? Thirty nine people wrote responses to this question; twenty one wrote either “N/A” (not applicable) or “Don’t know.” Many who wrote “N/A” indicated they had not recently hired a state university business school graduate. Table five shows responses to this question. (See below.)
Additional Communication Skills Desired In New Hires
A. Employer Comments Sorted By Oral/Written Emphasis
|Improved oral skills||40|
|Improved writing skills||25|
|Improved oral and written skills||2|
|Don't know or NA||4|
|No additional skills needed||7|
Total = 78
B. Employer Comments Sorted By Suggested Areas Of Improvement
|Area of Improvement||Frequency|
|Public speaking skills - general||19|
|Writing skills - general||12|
|Spelling and grammar||6|
|Personal presentation (dress, etiquette, manners)||5|
|Speaking skills using PowerPoint||3|
N = 78
(Note: Multiple responses were received.)
Additional Skills Employers Desired in SJSU New Hires
A. Employer Comments Sorted By Oral/Written Emphasis
|Improved speaking skills||23|
|Improved writing skills||11|
|Improved oral and written skills||5|
|No additional skills needed||6|
|Don't know or NA||21|
N = 66
(Note: Some multiple responses were received.)
B. Employer Comments Sorted By Suggested Areas Of Improvement
|Public speaking skills - general||12|
|Writing skills - general||6|
|Spelling and grammar||5|
|Personal presentation (dress, etiquette, manners)||1|
|Organizational skills/running a meeting||1|
|Problem solving abilities||1|
N = 45
(Note: Some multiple responses were received.)
Discussion Of The First Three Questions
Responses to the first question indicated employers were slightly less than satisfied with the business communication skills of their new hire college graduates. The 3.7 mean fell in the “neutral” range, three-tenths of a point below “satisfied,” (4.0) indicating employers believed their new hires’ skills need some improvement The written comments from the first open-ended question help to interpret this rating. “Need better attention to detail,” wrote one employer, “Down the line they input notes into computerized fields and in-house legal counsel is constantly complaining about poor quality,” another wrote. This comment argues for more rigorous editing standards in business communication courses. Establishing habits of close editing can make students more responsible for accuracy in other business areas, such as accounting and finance, in addition to creating stronger writers. Employers also expressed a desire for stronger skills in public speaking, interpersonal skills, confidence and improved interviewing skills. Several wrote that students needed more presentation skills using tools like Powerpoint.
The second question sought to determine satisfaction levels with new hires’ writing skills. The 3.7 mean also fell in the “neutral” range, three-tenths of a point below “satisfied” (4.0), indicating employers were not fully satisfied with their new hires’ writing skills. Responses from the first open-ended question help interpret this rating. Again their comments decried the lack of attention to detail, noting typographical errors on resumes and cover letters. Employers also observed that students seemed reluctant to write, and one employer commented, “When asked to write an essay as part of our hiring process, they must understand they need to write the essay rather than bullet–list ideas.” Another stressed efficiency with electronic communication saying, “The ability to communicate by email clearly and concisely is essential.” “Students can’t organize their thoughts on paper and can’t proofread,” wrote another employer. “They need the ability to take something that is awkwardly written and make it flow smoothly-- to express business ideas in writing that is 180 degrees from writing for English classes.”
Employers commented about e-mail use saying, “Prepare students to be both comprehensive and brief on email. E-mail is the major communications medium for most of the positions in this region.” Employers also noted the need to understand e-mail as a professional business communication channel. Several commented that students used e-mail too casually and urged a more professional, formal style that eliminated slang and “the kid stuff” from email messages, specifically referring to the “smiley face” emoticons.
Question three focused specifically on the state university students. Their business communication skills were rated an overall 3.37, below the “strong” category of 4.0, indicating that employers were less than satisfied with the state university graduates’ writing and speaking skills. While the majority of ratings were “neutral” (3.0 range), twice as many rated their skills “weak” or “very weak” as did “very strong.” Responses from the second open-ended question are helpful in interpreting these numerical ratings. First, employers asked for stronger presentation skills. Comments ranged from “better public speaking skills needed” to “students must have the ability to give a presentation which allows the speaker’s personality to come through.” English as a second language (ESL) difficulties were noted by several employers, including one who commented, “During our interview process, most of the candidates with English as a second language did not understand our interview questions and could not effectively respond.” Employers also noted the use of too much slang, particularly among the ESL students.
The state university is an urban one with approximately 30,000 students and serves a large minority population. The School of Business enrolls 5000 majors, and Asian, Hispanic and Filipino business students outnumber whites three to one (IPAR, 2000). English is a second language for many students. Due this area's high housing costs, they tend to live with their parents while attending college. They speak English during the day at the university and speak their native languages when they return home at night. Plutsky (69) noted the growing increase of minority students at California universities and the ensuing challenges for business communication educators in struggling to teach effective business communication skills.
Employers perceived language skills as a barrier. One wrote “Many students come to me with poor English skills (i.e. using slang). I could not hire them because of our client perception.” Another commented that “students need a better command of the English language—they’re using slang words too much.” Finally, about twelve percent of the employers had no problems with their new hires’ business communication skills. Six of the forty eight respondents to this question said they were fully satisfied with the SJSU business school students and felt no additional communication skills were needed. One employer wrote, “They’re better than I was.”
Unique educational challenges faced the state university because of the multicultural diversity in the area. English is spoken at home in only 48 percent of the area households. Twenty five percent speak Spanish at home; 22 percent speak an Asian or Pacific Islander language and 6 percent are categorized as “other”. (http://www.ci.san-jose.ca.us/planning/sjplan/data/factsheet/demographics/html). The question of whether students have more difficulty learning spoken or written English largely depends on their native language. Spanish-speaking students have fewer problems with written English because the Roman alphabet is common to both Spanish and English. Asian students, however, often have more difficulty with written English because they have to learn the Roman alphabet and different grammatical structures; for example, articles are not used in most Asian languages. Thus, the Chinese student is likely to write, “I answered telephone” instead of “I answered the telephone.” Language experts agree that immersion in a language and practice speed language acquisition and that speaking one’s native language at home, as many of these students do, slows and impedes the process.
Content Analyses Of The Open-Ended Questions
Two interesting results emerged from the content analysis of the first question, “What additional business communication skills would you like to see in your recent college graduate new hires.” First, employers requested improved oral presentation skills more frequently than they did written skills. Second, seven respondents, nearly ten percent, indicated they were completely satisfied with their new hires’ communication skills.
Table 4 indicates that forty employers preferred improved oral skills and twenty five requested improved written skills in their new hires. These results are consistent with Maes, Weldy and Incenogle’s study showing employer preferences for improved oral communication competencies in their new hires (77). The second part of Table 4 shows employer preferences for improved skills by specific topic. Public speaking skills were most frequently mentioned, followed by general writing skills. Next, employers wanted students to improve interpersonal skills and confidence, spelling, grammar, and interviewing skills. Employers also observed a need for students to improve dress, etiquette and manners, indicating business communication courses or a career services center could address these issues in greater depth.
Responses to the second open-ended question, “What additional business communication skills would you like to see in your recent state university College of Business new hires?” were also interesting. Employers recommended improving oral skills almost 2-1 over written skills, observing that second language interference, grammar problems and slang were pervasive in the students’ spoken expressions. Twenty three employers addressed the need for improved oral skills, eleven noted the need for improved writing skills, and five were evenly divided between oral and written. Table 5 indicates employers’ suggestions for additional business communication skills for university’s business school graduates in order of frequency. Improved speaking and writing skills were first and second, followed by interpersonal skills, spelling and grammar, interviewing skills and remedying second language interference. Employers noted language problems during interviews and added that additional “people skills” were also needed. Six respondents said no additional skills were necessary, indicating satisfaction with the status quo.
While this study has revealed some interesting perceptions of Silicon Valley employers’ opinions of the communication skills of their recent hires and the finding are important and revealing, the study is somewhat limited in its scope. First, the majority of surveys were obtained from employers attending the state university’s career fairs, so it cannot be concluded these responses represent the full range of opinions from Silicon Valley employers. While 104 usable surveys were obtained from career fair participants, the significance of this survey would have been greater if more than 104 completed surveys been obtained. Nevertheless, the conclusions drawn from these responses are revealing and illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of college graduates employed in Silicon Valley. And while the study was limited to employers associated with the state university, it is important to note that this university provides the largest number of college graduates to Silicon Valley area employers.
Responses suggest that employers in Silicon Valley are not fully satisfied with the business communication skills of their new hire college graduates. They identified a need for stronger oral communication skills and also observed a deficiency in students’ writing and proofreading abilities. Vocabulary and use of slang were seen as weaknesses, particularly among ESL (English as a second language) students. Employers said students needed additional help in personal presentation, interviewing and in business etiquette. Cultural differences account for some of the perceived weaknesses at the university and other urban business schools with high populations of ESL students. Schools with diverse populations and large numbers of students with second language interference would do well to emphasize oral communication skills more heavily, because, as Buzzanell noted, the lack of these skills may pose barriers to employment (159). More schools need to survey their stakeholders by asking the types of questions used in this study. Considerably more research is needed in this area because universities should regularly assess the satisfaction level of employers with their graduates’ business communication skills. Universities with large numbers of ESL students should dialogue with their principal employers to ensure that their students are competent communicators.
An increasingly sophisticated set of communication skills will be needed in the 21st century workplace; so it is important that business schools identify those components and skill sets that will best serve the future manager, and align business communication programs to meet those needs. The field of business communication appears not to be addressing these needs sufficiently or focusing on the employers as stakeholders. Changes are urgently needed.
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