Poor literacy: career stumbling block

A curious set of facts I came across as part of my recent studies makes it certain that any Australian looking for career advancement needs to be able to demonstrate a high degree of literacy.

Most people I know, even those with post-graduate degrees, tend to be dismissive of grammar and spelling as important, even in professional communication. But only some professionals get away with cavalier attitudes like that, and only if they are exceptionally brilliant in other areas. Most of us aren’t that fortunate.

So, what are the set of facts I came across?

Well, it transpires that even though I am qualified to teach at undergraduate level in a university, I am not qualified to teach in the vocational education and training (VET) area, which is focused on sub-degree certifications for specific industry skills and competency areas.

So I am undertaking a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment; successful completion will allow me to train in and teach VET subjects.

As part of my studies, I have become quite familiar with both the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF), and the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF). The AQF splits all qualifications into ten levels, where a PhD is number ten, and a Certificate I is the lowest qualification level. The first seven levels on that scale are below a Bachelor’s degree, and levels five to seven are diploma-level qualifications.

Here’s what the AQF says about the literacy level expected for someone at the Bachelor degree level:

Graduates at this level will have well-developed cognitive, technical and communication skills to select and apply methods and technologies to:

  • analyse and evaluate information to complete a range of activities
  • analyse, generate and transmit solutions to unpredictable and sometimes complex problems
  • transmit knowledge, skills and ideas to others

The emphasis is mine. What the AQF document is talking about is excellent communication skills, not least in writing. By excellent I don’t mean everybody who can grunt gets a gold star. I actually mean a professional standard of English, with a solid grasp of grammar and spelling.

More importantly, HR managers and others who select new hires or decide on promotions will be strongly guided by the AQF guidelines. Maybe not as a strict policy, but certainly because someone has already prepared these guidelines, and they have wide application.

Lest you think this is a tough standard to meet, wait for the prescriptions in the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF). There isn’t a precise correlation between the AQF and ACSF, but figure 1 below offers a rough equivalency.

Figure 1: AQF and ACSF. Based on Matt Peachey.

So, by the time working people have completed a certificate IV qualification, they are expected to have level five ACSF competencies in learning, reading, writing, oral communication, and numeracy. Note the steep rise in the learning curve between pre and post-degree qualifications, and the requirement for the same core skills before a degree is attained, and up to PhD level. Adapting to such a learning curve, and keeping the knowledge and skills acquired that way fresh requires constant use of them in practical settings. For example, if you were to get a driving licence and then not drive for the next ten years, or only very rarely, you would not expect to be an experienced and resourceful driver in a variety of vheicles and under a variety of circumstances. Likewise with reading and writing.

I’m not saying the AQF and ACSF prescriptions necessarily reflect workplace realities; there has been a lot of critique about the literacy and numeracy levels of school-leavers, and even of university graduates. However, in a tight jobs market, with strong competition, being able to evidence a higher skill level than others in any area of competency will count for something.

How you will be measured

The following tables, taken directly from the ACSF guidelines document, are what recruitment and HR professionals increasingly rely on to assess candidates beyond the more directly rôle-related skills and experience.

Figure 2: Reading competency 5.03
Figure 3: Reading competency 5.04

Particularly interesting is the table (below) listing sample activities, some of which have been used by employers to create case studies that job applicants have to process in order to produce written responses demonstrating their comprehension of the material, and their ability to summarise and report on what they have read.

Figure 4: Reading level five competency tests.

Ask yourself whether you can and do meet these standards. Be honest. You don’t have to tell anyone. But if these requirements don’t concern you, you are probably highly trained in literacy or independent of anyone else’s assessment of your skills.

How would you track if asked to compare and contrast technical and performance specifications of several different systems prior to making a multi-milion-dollar purchasing recommendation? That one still makes me nervous.

But technical reading and abalysis are merely specific examples of a much deeper competency in this regard. There is a huge difference between consuming throw-away text on a tiny screen, designed solely to harvest and sell your personal details, and reading to try and understand someone’s arguments and ideas on paper, or at least on a book-sized screen intended less for consumerism than productivity and professional applications.

It’s not enough to absorb and repeat buzzwords. Professionals worthy of promotion and better positions will have a depth of knowledge that comes only from concentrated absorption of ideas and information, leading to thoughtful critical analysis, and the resulting synthesis, or creation of new knowledge. That synthesis is the ultimate value-added product of habitual reading and analysis (see also the knowledge management part of my essay on ‘Innovation without delusions’). It doesn’t happen as a one-off effort, and it is recognised as a pattern, not as a single instance, or even a few of them.

Likewise, paying attention to business communications when others don’t will be noticed. For example, treating email as a serious business communication tool, and thinking about responses rather than being cavalier about them will be noticed and appreciated. The same goes for contributions to organisational Wikis, Sharepoint information resources, reports, submissions, and white papers.

And that’s just about reading competency. Now for the writing part.

Figure 5: Writing competency 5.05
Figure 6: Writing competency 5.06
Figure 7: Writing level five competency tests.

I have an English degree, have worked as a journalist, editor, and as a business and technical writer. If I had to prove my skills against these criteria, I would have to work at it a bit. Meaning I think these are tough standards to meet even for experts in literacy.

The position paper or report based on analysis and stakeholder consultation is still one of the most common demands made of professionals across a range of disciplines that are routinely handled very badly. Being able to do this well really distinguishes a candidate for a job or promotion, all other things being equal.

Let me reiterate: the competencies and tests alluded to above are not a reflection of universal reality. Not yet. But in a tight job market, where competition for jobs and promotions is fierce, the decision-makers will increasingly rely on standards and evidence requirements like those shown above.

What can you do?

If you think your literacy skills could do with a brush-up, there are some easy things you can do that won’t make you sweat (too much).

As with all other things, a skill acquired will only be a finely honed skill if used regularly. That means you ought to read and write regularly.

Reading doesn’t have to be heavy or boring. An airport thriller, a romance novel, or even some of the classics will do. So long as it is a regular habit. Like half an hour before bed time most nights, or the twenty minutes on the train to and from work. It isn’t so much the content as the subliminal process of recognising the correct spelling of words, the variations on grammatical usage, the incidence of idiom, metaphor, and simile, that matter when it comes to reading. And maybe also a habit of looking up words you don’t already know, or are not sure of. All of that has become really simple in the era of eBooks, Kindles, and tablets. I use my old Nexus 7 almost exclusively as an eBook reader, and regularly flick back and forth between dictionary, Google, and the latest thriller novel I’m reading to look up words, locations, and gadgets, and sometimes even grammatical rules (because I’m nerdy that way).

Regular writing also doesn’t have to be onerous or heavy going.

Many professionals use a self-reflection discipline to review and improve their practices and performance. That means thinking about what you did today, whether it could have been done better, and if so, how. I do this first in my head and then on paper, in a longhand journal. Journaling doesn’t have to aim at Tolstoyesque door-stop volumes. Entries in a journal can be quite brief, but it is a good idea to get into the habit of writing clear sentences anyone could understand–the way it is required in business and professional communication.

At the same time as habitually writing clean and precise sentences, there are some bad habits to avoid. Two of the least professional forms of communication today are SMS text messages, and tweets. If you indulge in these frequently, your professional communication skills may be withering away quite rapidly for lack of use. Just look at the poor quality of communication that characterises the tweets of some well-known contemporary politicians. Bad communication like that is a reflection, too, of atrociously poor analytical skills and very muddled thinking!

Another really bad habit is treating email as if it were an informal text messaging app. That’s not made easier by companies like Google offering to auto-complete your email responses with semi-literate hipster talk:

When my in-box started offering me Smart Replies, I felt a little offended. How dare it guess what I want to say, I thought. I—a professional writer!—have more to offer than just “Got it!” or “Love it!” or “Thanks for letting me know!” (Smart Replies are big on exclamation points.) I started to resent the A.I., which seemed to be learning my speech patterns faster than I could outsmart it. Just as I decided that I’d thwart the machine mind by answering my messages with “Cool!” (side note: it is hard to sound like anything but a Dad Trying to Be Hip over e-mail, even without robotic intervention), the service started offering me several “Cool” varietals. Suddenly, I could answer with “Sounds cool” or “Cool, thanks” or the dreaded “Cool, I’ll check it out!” (Spoiler: I’m not going to check it out.)

My greatest anxiety about using Smart Replies, though, was that other people would know I was using them. I worried that my editors would see my “On it!” and feel like I was cruising on autopilot, or that my friends would get a “Perfect!” and feel like I didn’t care enough about them to craft a finely tailored response. (This unease runs both ways: Has the editor who replies “This is great!” even bothered to read my fresh story draft?) Answering e-mails started to become more work than it used to be, as I labored to whip up artisanal one-liners. My typical response to a quick work e-mail—a straightforward, if somewhat Wally Cleaver-esque, “Gotcha”—now sounded horrifically canned. I became baroque in my punctuation and capitalization (“LET A GAL KNOW!!!”), figuring that sounding like a deranged human was preferable to sounding like a computer server.

– Rachel Syme, The New Yorker, 28 November 2018

Email has legal status now, and should be written and responded to the same way as official correspondence. For most organisations that requires a level of formality that doesn’t stoop to one-liners. When I respond to business emails I tend to draft my replies in a text editor or word processor, as much to remind me that this isn’t some onerous task worthy of only a slapdash effort as it is to help me focus on the message rather than the medium. What is it that needs to be said. Not what can I get away with because I personally don’t think of email as a serious communication medium.

All this to say, if you do not write longer-form prose regularly, you will get worse at it over time.

If you are considering a move from your current job, or asking for promotion, it couldn’t hurt to start practicing the kind of writing you need to do to evidence your skills in this area. I have a portfolio of sample written work to show if I need to, as evidence of the range and complexity of documents I can and do write. And I have copies of previous submissions and applications I can easily re-process for new purposes.

Maybe you don’t need a portfolio, but it couldn’t hurt to have some ready-made sample documents for reports, submissions, applications, and any other kinds of documents you might be asked to produce at short notice.

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