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Applied Skills Required

Today I was talking to a partner at a regional marketing firm that specializes in STEM clients (medical devices, computer hardware, etc). He said the biggest challenge wasn't finding tech writers — it was finding technically skilled writers.

Some new graduates want to be "tech writers" and have solid writing skills, yet they don't know the software, file formats, mark-up languages, and other tools of the trade. We end up training people on simple tasks: using styles in applications, planning DITA content, etc. Many employers, however, don't want to train new graduates; they assume new graduates have the toolset skills required to start working on day one.

Should "tech writing" programs include more applied skills that go beyond composing and editing to include designing, formatting, and distributing materials? My own academic experience did not include any coursework with hands-on computer time, but I have the advantage of being a computer programmer and technician.

I know the ideal liberal arts education focuses on how to think, not job-specific skills. But, employers don't want to spend time and money teaching someone the "tools of the trade" for any industry. I expect a writer knows Word, an engineer understands CAD software, and a programmer can navigate an IDE without training.

How do we balance the need to teach skills with the ideals of a well-rounded education? How much skills training should be part of a degree program? I realize "technical" and "vocational" institutions focus on skills, instead of abstract knowledge and theory. But, there are some "vocational" skills employers expect, especially from graduates with advanced degrees.

I struggle with what the right balance might be. You can use skills to teach thinking, and you certainly use the skills to create expressions of ideas. An artist will use InDesign, Illustrator, or Photoshop to express an idea. The skills are integrated into the curriculum out of necessity.

Yet, this skills integration isn't the case in some disciplines. Too many of the aspiring "tech writers" I've met don't know how to use Word properly. They haven't had to use the software of their profession. That's inexcusable, to me. We should be teaching technical skills, somehow, throughout degree programs.

Of course, this leads to a question: Do teachers of writing and communication courses know the tools as well as their counterparts working in private industry? Based on my observations, many writing instructors do not know the tools used to design, format, and distribute materials. Sure, these instructors use Word or InDesign, but they do not use the tools "properly" — they rely on brute force formatting methods.

We don't need to be vocational; we need to use vocational skills to put our theories and ideas to work.

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