Why graduates have poor business skills – part 1

On repeated occasions, surveys in Australia and other countries report that business leaders complain about graduates without appropriate skills. It is not just surveys that tell this story.

Not so long ago, a well-known Australian university decided to promote itself by seeking local business leaders to extol the benefits of their experiences at the university. Well, it turned out that most had actually dropped out of their courses and never finished their degrees! So the campaign was quietly abandoned.

Why is the reputation of graduates so low in business circles, particularly in the minds of business employers? It is not just engineers, apparently, that have terrible communication skills.

My research on engineers might provide some novel answers that lie deep within the structure of our education systems. Several factors emerged from this research that affect not just engineers, but all graduates.

In this post I will describe the first of these factors.

Much of our education system, particularly higher education, implicitly privileges written expression at the expense of listening, speaking, reading, seeing & visual expression because nearly all high stakes assessment requires students to write (or select written MCQ responses).

Increased class sizes, of course, have driven the shift to written assessments.

Because writing is repeatedly associated with grades, and grades with success, the message is subtly reinforced through all secondary and higher education. Can you remember when teachers criticised your writing and made corrections? Of course we went through those experiences with red ink and crossing out liberally sprinkled across our hastily written homework.

Now try and remember the last time a teacher corrected and helped your reading, listening, or seeing? For most of us, we were too young because it would have been in the distant past, in pre-school perhaps or primary school.

Yet, when I ask my students to evaluate their listening, reading and seeing skills, they amaze themselves when they discover just how weak their skills really are. One told me “You know, all through our courses, you never had to listen. If you missed it the first time, you would just replay the recording, again and again if necessary, or find a YouTube video and learn from that.”

I ask them to evaluate their skills (Chapter 6 in my book explains how) and their scores start as low as 5-15% before they realise that they can improve with practice.

It is not just that writing is implicitly associated with success by students. It is also that, because of this, reading, seeing and listening are implicitly seen as unimportant, not skills to be worked at and improved.

Yet, in business, it is listening, reading and seeing that graduates need to understand customer needs and business requirements. No wonder they do that badly!

It is not just engineers: all graduates are affected by this implicit privileging of writing at the expense of listening, reading & seeing. And the numbers stack up: research shows that university grades are almost no help in predicting job performance.  The implicit devaluing of listening, reading and seeing may help to explain this.

I will write about more deeply embedded culture factors in education in the coming weeks.

<to be continued>


  1. My experience working with and employing graduates concurs witty this. Though I hope people don’t interpret the term ‘privilegingredients writing’ to mean that the writing standards or quantum should be reduced. In fact I would venture that written standards have declined over that last couple of decades or so. But certainly there needs to be a greater emphasis on listening and verbal communication skills.


  2. Pingback: Why graduates have poor business skills – part 2 « THE MAKING OF AN EXPERT ENGINEER

  3. Pingback: Why graduates have poor business skills – part 3 « THE MAKING OF AN EXPERT ENGINEER

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