Want a Job? Can You Write?

From the wood-paneled offices of high-power law firms to the whirring assembly lines of the nation's carmakers, one thing is clear: Businesses want employees who can communicate clearly - both verbally and in writing.

Take Hunter Banbury, a recent graduate of the joint-degree program in law and business at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

There are a lot of smart kids in law school, he says, "so the professors have to find a way to differentiate between the A's and the B's." What it comes down to, he says, is writing skills. "The people with the best writing get the A's."

The ability to write clearly is also key at Mr. Banbury's Denver law firm, Berenbaum, Weinshienk, and Eason. "The major role we play is trying to make a complex legal system simple," he says. Because a lot of clients haven't looked at an issue before, "We have to present it as straightforwardly as possible."

And because most legal work is done in writing - not orally - there's a big premium on writing skills.

In fact, across today's information-driven economy, "so much is communicated by the written word" that "If you've got all the other skills, and not writing, that's the weak link," says Richard Thirsk, director of the career center at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

Indeed, unlike in the past, good communication skills are becoming necessary in the service and manufacturing sectors - everywhere from the local Gap store to the car manufacturing plant just outside of town.

There's a common theme in these sectors, says Richard Murnane, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and author of "Teaching The New Basic Skills" (Free Press), which examines the skills needed in the work force.

"If you're an organization trying to succeed by improving the quality of your service," Dr. Murnane says, "you've got to rely on front-line workers." It's these front-line employees - the Gap employee or the car-assembly worker - who know whether the customers are happy or the products are top quality.

These employees must communicate to management their ideas for improvement. "It's pretty hard to do this without being able to write," Murnane says.

Take the Mitsubishi auto plant in Normal, Ill. This 44-acre behemoth spits out 900 cars a day. Those most responsible for quality are the hundreds of assembly line workers.

"They are the experts," says plant spokeswoman Gael O'Brien.

Workers are asked to rethink the procedures for each task - from applying glue to keep windshields in place to attaching sun visors. And they are expected to put their ideas in writing so other workers - and overall quality - can benefit

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