Communication Breakdown

School boy from the 1970sI’m glad that I went to school when I did. My public school teachers may have been part of a nefarious plot to turn me into a minor cog in some impersonal corporate machine. Or they might have just been putting in their time until retirement, weathering each successive storm of boomer births. Something along the way foiled their intent, however.

My own K-12 experience, like many that occurred during the 1970s, introduced the topic of research right around sixth grade. Our classroom teacher marched us single file down to the library, and the expectation was that we’d use the library’s resources to compile data, and put it together in report form. We used actual books, encyclopedias primarily. The requirement was that we were to catalog our information using index cards. Then, our teacher reviewed our work before we were ever allowed to write our first sentence. No mere googling for us!

Why is this so important? Because plugging terms into Google is lazy. Being lazy means developing bad habits, and this leads to crappy outcomes. 

Having spent the past eight years working with employers on talent acquisition, they’ve regularly bent my ear with horror stories about the sorry state of most new hires. Many of these are bright students, graduating from college programs and not having a clue about gathering data, or producing functional technical documents. That doesn’t even take into account the inability to communicate clearly via professional channels, like email. Email might be old school for a generation that prefers texting, but in the world of business professionals, email still matters.

I am all about being able to utilize social media effectively. I actually believe that using social media effectively requires having a foundation that’s based in a more formal understanding of communication. Call me old-fashioned, but it concerns me that companies are really struggling to find graduates that possess many of what I’d call basic, or foundational skills, especially when it comes to sharing information.

Ideological purists of a particular political stripe think all of this can be remedied by sending all our kids to charter schools. I’m not opposed to charter schools, but I don’t think they are the panacea for our workforce ills.

Actually, what began as a conversation has devolved into a bitch session; business blames education, and I can’t say that education isn’t culpable to some degree. However, I don’t think public education, or even charter schools for that matter, exist merely to serve as training academies for corporate America.

Taking a step further, public education in much of the country is broken beyond repair. Inner city schools warehouse students at best, and at their worst, have cultures so toxic that they can’t be reformed. In many parts of the country, the choice has now come down to building prisons because so many students are failing in urban schools, and incarceration, rather than college, is their next step on life’s continuum.

What I believe the business community is going to have to do is invest and make major commitments to in-house remedial programming; writing classes, basic math programming, and other trainings that provide new employees with the skills each company requires. Otherwise, the demographic data isn’t promising regarding replacing aging baby boomers, although many of them will probably work much longer than ever before. This factor opens up other issues about an aging workforce, disabilities related to aging, and a vastly different and diverse workforce than we’ve ever had.

Those companies with leaders who recognize this and make the necessary investments in training will be in the vanguard and at a competitive advantage over those failing to innovate and take a proactive approach.

3 thoughts on “Communication Breakdown

  1. Wow, I’m not sure how to respond. Since you started with research, I’ll ask if you have any research and/or data to support your assertion that “public education is broken beyond repair.” Googling may be lazy, but so is the false premise. Many people are quick to condemn public schools, secure in the belief that they could do a better job. Before you do that, think of my friend, Kenny, who teaches in one of the toughest schools in New York. He’s determined to save all his students. He is a coach who stops a game to walk on the field and address inappropriate language. He helps his kids fund raise all winter so that they can go to a summer sports camp in Maine. He even brings them to his parents’ house in the County so they can experience the outdoors. For kids who live daily with poverty, broken homes and gang violence, Kenny may be the most stable part of their lives.
    Think, too, of Jamie Vollmer. A successful businessman, well-educated, he was among those criticizing the public schools, until a teacher schooled him. Read his Blueberry Story. The public schools take all children with whatever strengths or weaknesses they may have and do their best to educate them. Vollmer now believes “[p]ublic education is a miracle. And this is its most hopeful time.” (
    I do agree that business will need to provide in house education so that workers can meet the particular needs of each business. And public schools will prepare students for ongoing learning as a part of a vibrant, extensive education that meets the needs of the whole child. Companies that want to be leaders will do everything that can to support the public schools, not tear them down.

  2. Mary,

    You selectively quoted only part of what I wrote, which was, “…public education in much of the country is broken beyond repair.” I followed that with the assertion that much of this in in the urban school systems that do nothing but basically warehouse children. Jonathan Kozol has written extensively on this and I don’t find fault with anything that he’s written over the past 40 years. Here is a very good interview with Kozol worth reading.

    My post did not condemn public schools. There are many that are capable and turn out graduates that are well-prepared for the 21st century world of work. My son, Mark, had the good fortune of being able to attend Greely High School, a strong public school, as are many that are located in communities that are on the upper-end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Your own children all turned out marvelously well and education has prepared them for the world they are stepping out int.

    I’ve read a number of books about public education, including those by John Taylor Gatto, John Dewey, Kozol’s, and Bill Ayers to name a few educators I respect and while I may not agree with them on everything, think they broadly frame my understanding as a layperson about public ed. Gatto comes from the perspective of a former teach, Dewey, a theorist, Kozol, a researcher/writer in the trenches, and Ayers, while a polarizing figure, has much to consider in his assertions about schools, education, and his condemnation of NCLB, and much of the Obama education policies.

    My post wasn’t a blanket statement on public schools but more trained on the role that employers and the business community are going to have to take in training their future workforce.

    I’m not an educator, don’t pretend to be, but I do know the workforce realm and the concerns that many business leaders have.

    The charter vs. public debate is problematic in my opinion, but given that I’m a blogger, here, not a researcher, I’ll leave that for another day.

    I’m sorry that you took my post as an attack on education because it wasn’t.

  3. I’ll disagree, but only mildly. All public schooling is beyond repair, but it is not broken. It is doing exactly what it is designed to do, create masses of people whose only way to know who they are is to consume, consume, consume. School teaches people their place, and it does it quite well. There are many, many teachers who break their back giving their all, teachers like the ones Mary cites, but they don’t understand the system itself shapes the message, not the teachers, who are expendable and replaceable by the school system.

    As to your original point, I can say that in my profession your observation is valid. I repeatedly come up against what can only be called “thoughtless” reports. I am in the business of making hard judgements–is this report true or false, and what does either conclusion mean–and I regularly find myself appalled at “assessments” that have no argument to them at all. No careful documentation of the evidence, no evaluation of whether previous reporting proved correct or incorrect, no understanding of the political, cultural or personal (very important and entirely overlooked in our age of “data”) motivations that may affect a report, or why or how. How did you get this conclusion from this raw data? Challenged to defend, most are utterly incapable of making an argument. Many take it personally. Others can be mentored, but not many want to put in the painful mental labor it takes to get truly valuable in this trade (or dangerous–truth tellers aren’t always wanted).

    So it does not surprise me from my own government-based experience that businesses face the same problem, young people who simply do not know how to do real research, and organize that into an argument.

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