'The ability to communicate in clear, accurate written English is a powerful tool for a geotechnical engineer. Can today's graduates cut the mustard?
When I was young I couldn't spell 'engineer', now I is one.'
This well worn joke adorned many civil engineering students' walls in the 1980s. But, corny as it is, it hints at a poor understanding of written English that many believe to be as rife among science and engineering graduates today as it was in the era of pixie boots and shoulder pads.
Cristina Stuart, communications expert and founder of Speak First Training, believes there is an urgent need for a better focus on communications in the British workplace, not least in the construction industry.
'Issues that used to be important at school no longer are, ' she claims. 'Now grammar is not taught and spelling not corrected, the discipline and foundations one needs for a good grasp of written English are no longer there.'
Steve Branch, managing director of Geotechnical & Environmental Associates, believes a geotechnical engineer's ability to communicate in writing is every bit as important as his or her technical ability.
'As geotechnical engineers, the level of our technical ability or experience is irrelevant Email pitfalls Computer spell-checks may obliterate the more obvious spelling and grammatical clangers, but they can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
With email fast becoming the favoured form of day-to-day business communication, the sloppy standards of grammar and writing associated with it need to be improved.
Many companies now enforce formal email policies, emphasising the need for courtesy and an awareness of cultural issues.
The informality of emailing can easily lead to unintentional without the ability to communicate the fruits of our technical effort to our peers and, more importantly, to non-technical readers such as the client and the public in general, ' he says.
'Everything we do needs to be reported in a written form, and it is essential our findings and recommendations are conveyed in a clear manner.'
A good grasp of written English is crucial when it comes to getting a job. Branch says too many of the CVs he receives include spelling and grammatical errors, the most common being the inappropriate use of capital letters and apostrophes.
This latter bugbear is one shared with Lynne Truss, whose bestselling book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, is a trumpet blast for the importance of good writing skills.
Branch adds that, bearing in mind the widespread availability of computer spell-checking, he puts CVs with spelling mistakes straight in the bin.
In common with many employers, he laments the demise of the hand-written covering letter, noting that it is now commonplace for CVs to arrive either from agencies or from candidates 'on spec' by email, with nothing but a offence, particularly in an international context. Omit the respectful Mr or Ms prefix with a German colleague, for example, and eyebrows will be raised.
It is a good policy to deal with all emails immediately, and to avoid capital letters, which might be perceived as shouting. Terse messages and abbreviations and symbols more usually associated with texting may well be construed as rude.
Humour can easily be misunderstood as anyone who has ever tried to translate a joke for a foreign friend can testify.
This cultural minefield is a territory best ventured into outside working hours.
brief covering message.
His advice to anyone needing to brush up on their grammar is to examine as many different styles of writing as possible and, 'as an absolute minimum' read a quality newspaper every day.
Pete Arnold is a director at Yeandle Geotechnical which, having just moved to larger premises near Exeter Airport, is now looking to expand its geotechnical staff. Arnold notes that while female graduates are generally better at written communication than their male counterparts, the ability to write well is something most engineers can acquire on the job, under the guidance of a good manager.
Clarity and developing a good, individual writing style are what most new recruits need to concentrate on, Arnold says.'You can write an accurate, prescriptive report that is technically correct, but if the client cannot understand it, he or she will go elsewhere, ' he says.
He does not agree there has been a decline in educational standards in recent years, insisting that today's graduates are both more worldly and better at grasping ideas than those of the previous generation.
This sentiment is shared by Alan Powderham, Mott MacDonald's director of transportation. 'Maybe we're fortunate in the quality of our geotechnical graduates, but I've noticed an impressive improvement in their communication skills - in their writing ability and overall confidence.' he says.
Powderham says Motts' internal specialist forums provide engineers with 'a chance to practise their communication skills in a testing environment'He acknowledges there is a pressing need for the geotechnical sector to communicate on a wider, interdisciplinary platform.
The good news, he adds, is that geotechnical engineers' ability to communicate verbally and on paper is already strong, 'and seems to be growing stronger' Branch also acknowledges the good verbal communication skills exhibited by many graduates.'The biggest difficulty we have is in ensuring that verbal communications are written down as file notes, ' he says.
'This seems to be much more of a problem for younger engineers than for more experienced staff, who seem to make notes, site diaries, sketches and so on as a matter of course.'
Branch says perhaps there will come a time when all project-related conversations are recorded on tape and saved on the file server, 'and the ability to communicate verbally will take precedence over written skills'