1.1 – Why on earth am I taking another English course?

Learning Objectives

  • Distinguish between the nature of English and Communications courses
  • Explain the importance of studying Communications
  • Identify communication-related skills and personal qualities favoured by employers
  • Consider how communication skills will ensure your future professional success
  • Recognize that the quality of your communication represents the quality of your company

Communications vs. English Courses

Whether students enter their first-year college Communications courses right out of high school or with years of work experience behind them, they often fear being doomed to repeat their high school English class, reading Shakespeare and analyzing confusing poetry. Welcome relief comes when they discover that a course in Communications has nothing to do with either of those things. If not High School English 2.0, what is Communications all about, then?

Photo by Taha , used under Unsplash License

For our purposes, Communications (yes, with a capital C and ending with an s) is essentially the practice of interacting with others in the academic world, the workplace and other professional contexts. While you are a college student, you will need to interact with scholarly sources and express your learning and ideas at an appropriate post-secondary level. When you embark on your career, absolutely every job—from A to Z, accountant to Zamboni mechanic—involves dealing with a variety of people all day long.

When dealing with various audiences, we adjust the way we communicate according to well-known conventions. You wouldn’t talk to a professor or client the same way you would a long-time friendly co-worker. If we communicate effectively—that is, clearly, concisely, coherently, correctly, and convincingly—by following those conventions, we can do a better job of applying our core technical skills, whether they be in sales, the skilled trades, the service industry, health care, the arts, and so on.

This isn’t to say that your high school English classes were useless; arguably the movement away from English fundamentals (grammar, punctuation, spelling, style, mechanics, etc.) in Canadian high schools does a disservice to students when they get into their careers. There they soon realize that stakeholders—customers, managers, co-workers, etc.—tend to judge the quality of a person’s general competence by the quality of their writing (if that’s all they have to go on) and speaking. The topic of Communications, then, includes aspects of the traditional English class curriculum, at least in terms of the basics of English writing and critical thought. But the emphasis always returns to what is practical and necessary for succeeding in the modern workplace—wherever that is—not simply what is “good for you” in the abstract just because someone says it is.

If you feel that you are a weak writer but an excellent speaker or vice versa, rest assured that weaknesses and strengths in different areas of the communication spectrum don’t necessarily mean that you will always be good or bad at communication in general. Weaknesses can and should be improved upon, strengths built upon. It’s important to recognize that we have more communication channels available to us than ever before, which means that the communication spectrum—from oral to written to nonverbal channels—is broader than ever. Competence across that spectrum is no longer just a “nice to have” asset sought by employers, but essential to career success.

Exercise 1

List your communication strengths and weaknesses. Next, explain what you hope to get out of this Communications course now that you know a little more about what it involves. Before you answer, however, read ahead through the rest of this chapter to get a further sense of why this course is so vital to your career success.

Communication Skills Desired by Employers

If there’s a shorthand reason for why you need communication skills to complement your technical skills, it’s that you don’t get paid without them. You need communication and “soft” skills to get work and keep working so that people continue to want to employ you to apply your core technical skills. A diverse skill set that includes communication is really the key to survival in the modern workforce, and hiring trends bear this out.

In its Employability Skills, the Conference Board of Canada lists “the skills you need to enter, stay in, and progress” in the 21st century workplace. The first category listed is communication skills, specifically how to:

  • Read and understand information presented in a variety of forms (e.g., words, graphs, charts, diagrams)
  • Write and speak so others pay attention and understand
  • Listen and ask questions to understand and appreciate the points of view of others
  • Share information using a range of information and communications technologies (e.g., voice, e-mail, computers)
  • Use relevant scientific, technological, and mathematical knowledge and skills to explain or clarify ideas (Conference Board, n.d., para. 2)

In other words, the quality of your communication skills in dealing with the various audiences that surround you in your workplace are the best predictors of professional success.

Exercise 2

  1. Go to the Government of Canada’s Job Bank site and find your chosen profession (i.e., the job your program will lead to) via the Explore Careers by Essential Skills [New tab] page. List the particular document types you will be responsible for communicating with in a professional capacity by reading closely through the Reading, Document Use, and Writing drop-downs. List the in-person responsibilities and communication technologies featured under the Oral Communication drop-down..
  2. The Conference Board of Canada’s Employability Skills Toolkit (access for Georgian students provided via the Library) lists 5 fundamental communication skills. Create a checklist document for these essential skills (listed below). Add to it some of the other personal qualities listed in the section above. For each skill or quality, write the best example you can think of demonstrating it in your current or past employment experience, academic program of study, or personal life.Conference Board of Canada’s Fundamental Communication Skills:
    1. Read and understand information presented in different ways (e.g., words, graphs, charts, diagrams).
    2. Write and speak so others can pay attention and understand.
    3. Listen and ask questions to understand and appreciate the points of view of others.
    4. Share information using different technologies (e.g., phone calls, e-mail, social media, the Internet).
    5. Use relevant knowledge and skills to explain or clarify ideas.

(Conference Board of Canada, 2022, p. 3)

A Diverse Skillset Featuring Communications Is Key to Survival

The picture painted by this insight into what employers are looking for tells us plenty about what we must do about our skillset to have a fighting chance in the fierce competition for jobs: diversify it and keep our communication skills at a high level. Gone are the days when someone would do one or two jobs throughout their entire career. Rather, if the current job-hopping trend continues, “Canadians can expect to hold roughly 15 jobs in their careers” (Harris, 2014, para. 8) and the future for many will involve gigging for several employers at once rather than for one (Mahdawi, 2017).

Futurists tell us that the “gig economy” will evolve alongside advances in AI (artificial intelligence) and automation that will phase out jobs of a routine and mechanical nature with machines. On the bright side, jobs that require advanced communication skills will still be safe for humans because AI and robotics can’t so easily imitate them in a way that meets human needs. Taxi drivers, for instance, are a threatened species now with Uber encroaching on their territory and will certainly go extinct when the promised driverless car revolution arrives in the next 10-15 years, along with truckers, bus drivers, and dozens of other auto- and transport-industry roles (Frey, 2016). They can resist, but the market will ultimately force them into retraining and finding work that is hopefully more future-proof—work that prioritizes the human element.

Since the future of work is a series of careers and juggling several gigs at once, communication skills are key to transitioning between them all. The gears of every career switch and new job added are greased by the soft skills that help convince your new employers and clients to hire you, or, if you strike out on your own, convince your new partners and employees to work with or for you. Career changes certainly aren’t the signs of catastrophe that they perhaps used to be; usually they mark moves up the pay scale so that you end your working life where you should: far beyond where you started in terms of both your role and pay bracket.

You simply cannot make those career and gig transitions without communication skills. In other words, you will be stuck on the first floor of entry-level gigging unless you have the soft skills to lift you up and shop you around. A nurse who graduates with a diploma and enters the workforce quilting together a patchwork of part-time gigs in hospitals, care homes, clinics, and schools, for instance, won’t still be exhausted by this juggling act if they have the soft skills to rise to decision-making positions in any one of those places. Though the job will be technologically assisted in ways that it never had been before with machines handling the menial dirty work, the fundamental human need for human interaction and decision-making will keep that nurse employed and upwardly mobile. The more advanced your communication skills develop as you find your way through the gig economy, the further up the pay scale you’ll climb.

Exercise 3

  1. Again using the Government of Canada’s Job Bank site, go to the Explore Job Prospects [New tab] page and search for your chosen profession (i.e., the job your program will lead to). Using the sources listed below as well as other internet research, explain whether near- and long-term projections predict that your job will survive the automation and AI revolution or disruption in the workforce. If the role you’re training for will be redefined rather than eliminated, describe what new skill sets will “future proof” it.
  2. Plot out a career path starting with your chosen profession and where it might take you. Consider that you can rise to supervisory or managerial positions within the profession you’re training for, but then transfer into related industries. Name those related industries and consider how they too will survive the automation/AI disruption.

Communication Represents You and Your Employer

Imagine a situation where you are looking for a contractor for a custom job you need done on your car and you email several companies for a quote breaking down how much the job will cost. You narrow it down to two companies who have about the same price, and one gets back to you within 24 hours with a clear price breakdown in a PDF attached in an email that is friendly in tone and perfectly written. But the other took four days to respond with an email that looked like it was written by a sixth-grader with multiple grammar errors in each sentence and an attached quote that was just a scan of some nearly illegible chicken-scratch writing. Comparing the communication styles of the two companies, choosing who you’re going to go with for your custom job is a no-brainer.

Of course, the connection between the quality of their communication and the quality of the job they’ll do for you isn’t water-tight, but it’s a fairly good conclusion to jump to, one that customers will always make. The company representative who took the time to ensure their writing was clear and professional, even proofreading it to confirm that it was error-free, will probably take the time to ensure the job they do for you will be the same high-calibre work that you’re paying for. By the same token, we can assume that the one who didn’t bother to proofread their email at all will likewise do a quick, sloppy, and disappointing job that will require you to hound them to come back and do it right—a hassle you have no time for. We are all picky, judgmental consumers for obvious reasons: we are careful with our money and expect only the best work value for our dollar.

Good managers know that about their customers, so they hire and retain employees with the same scruples, which means they appreciate more than anyone that your writing represents you and your company. As tech CEO Kyle Wiens (2012) says, “Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet” (para. 6) where your writing is “a projection of you in your physical absence” (para. 6). Just as people judge flaws in your personal appearance such as a stain on your shirt or broccoli between your teeth, suggesting a sloppy lack of self-awareness and personal care, so they will judge you as a person if it’s obvious from your writing that “you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re” (para. 6).

As the marketing slogan goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. If potential employers or clients (who are, essentially, your employers) see that you care enough about details to write a flawless email, they will jump to the conclusion that you will be as conscientious in your job and are thus a safe bet for hire. Again, it’s no guarantee of future success, but it increases your chances immeasurably. As Wiens (2012) says of the job of coding in the business of software programming, “details are everything. I hire people who care about those details” (paras. 12-13), but you could substitute “programmer” with any job title and it would be just as true.

Exercise 4

Describe an incident when you were disappointed with the professionalism of a business you dealt with, either because of shoddy work, poor customer service, shabby online or in-person appearance, etc. Explain how the quality of their communication impacted that experience and what you would have done differently if you were in their position.

Key Takeaways

  • By teaching you the communications conventions for dealing with a variety of stakeholders, a course in Communications has different goals from your high school English course and is a vitally important step towards professionalizing you for entry or re-entry into the workforce.
  • Employers value employees who excel in communication skills rather than just technical skills because, by ensuring better workplace and client relations, they contribute directly to the viability of the organization.
  • The quality of your communication represents the quality of your work and the organization you work for, especially online when others have only your words to judge.

Attributions & References

Except where otherwise noted, this chapter is adapted from “Why Communications?” In Communication at Work by Jordan Smith, licensed under CC BY 4.0. / Adaptations include corrections & updates to APA style, updating references/links, and selection of some content for removal, removal of references not used.

References from original source:

Conference Board of Canada. (n.d.). Employability skills.  https://www.conferenceboard.ca/edu/employability-skills.aspx

Conference Board of Canada. (2022, July 28). Employability Skills Toolkit. https://www.conferenceboard.ca/product/employability-skills/

Frey, T. (2016, April 5). 128 Things that will disappear in the driverless car era. Futurist Speaker. https://futuristspeaker.com/future-of-transportation/128-things-that-will-disappear-in-the-driverless-car-era/

Government of Canada. (2017-a). Explore careers by essential skills. (2017). https://www.jobbank.gc.ca/es_all-eng.do

Government of Canada. (2017-b). Explore job prospects. https://www.jobbank.gc.ca/wage-outlook_search-eng.do?reportOption=outlook

Harris, P. (2014, December 4). How many jobs do Canadians hold in a lifetime? Workopolis. https://careers.workopolis.com/advice/how-many-jobs-do-canadians-hold-in-a-lifetime/

Mahdawi, A. (2017, June 26). What jobs will still be around in 20 years? Read this to prepare your future. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/26/jobs-future-automation-robots-skills-creative-health

Wiens, K. (2012, July 20). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why.Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2012/07/i-wont-hire-people-who-use-poo/



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Communication Essentials for College Copyright © 2022 by Jen Booth, Emily Cramer & Amanda Quibell, Georgian College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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