College of Business center responds to employer call for better communication skills

AMES, Iowa -- A Wall Street Journal story recently reported that while business students' quantitative skills are prized by employers, their writing and presentation skills have been a regular complaint. And some business schools -- such as the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, the University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business, and Northeastern University's College of Business Administration -- have responded by putting more emphasis on writing, according to the article.

Count Iowa State University's College of Business among them too. The college has gradually seen the role of its Communications Center expand since it was founded in 2005. Just this year, it became a year-round, full-service center to students.

With the expanded service, Abhijit Rao (pronounced a-BEE-jit RAU), director of the center, reports that the number of student consultation sessions has grown from 114 in the first year it opened to 1,145 in this year's fall semester alone. And the center has added a third consultant to meet the students' increasing need.

"The digital age has definitely increased the volume of communicated messages that we generate -- not just text messages, but also images and the free apps that help us create them -- and that means there is more of a need among students for our service," said Rao, who has worked in the center since 2008, becoming director last fall.

"Nowadays, students are not just recipients of all these messages and images, but they create their own. That's good because it empowers them," he continued. "But on the other hand, if you don't know how to present yourself professionally in the online forum, you can do a lot more harm than good. So a lot of communication in the digital age has to be responsible because these documents are all public that students upload on their websites and through social media."

The Wall Street Journal article reports that employers and writing coaches say business school graduates tend to ramble, use pretentious vocabulary, or write emails that are too casual. Tim Killian -- an accounting master's student from the Quad Cities who is now one of the consultants in the Communication Center -- concurs. And he says that discipline-specific communication needs of students need to be addressed to produce better professionals.

"It would almost take the faculty of a specific business major to work with the communication class to really get that kind of specific practice," said Killian, who has already accepted a job with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Kansas City upon his graduation in May.

Rao says the college's Communication Center tries to enhance student learning three ways:

1. One-to-one student consultations. "We help them one-on-one with most of the common genres of business communication," Rao said. "We work with communication in four modes -- written, oral, visual and electronic. And all these modes may work together in any given assignment."

2. Faculty consulting role. "We help faculty develop assignments that are communication intensive," Rao said. "We just put a communication focus on the assignment -- an audience, a context, etc. And we help them develop rubrics that they can use for evaluation."

3. Class presentations. "We do presentations on business genres, or do a workshop where students can develop their communication skills on a given assignment," he said.

Now is a particularly busy time for center consultants as students seek assistance in their final projects and communication to gain employment or an internship. But Rao points out that they don't work on students' employment needs alone.

"We do get students working on their résumés and cover letters, or their job packets, but the College of Business also has a career center, which is our biggest resource for students on their employment documents," he said. "But when students come in, we definitely work with them, and that's an understanding we have with the career center."

It all adds up to a resource designed to help business students become better at articulating their talents to future employers, and to be more effective communicators once they're hired.