Why Job Candidates Who Can’t Write Deserve a Break

In a world immersed in e-mails and text messages, many career counselors recommend to their job-seeking clients that sending a hand-written thank you note might just be enough to differentiate oneself from the pack of qualified candidates.

But what happens when the manager slides open the envelope, removes the card, and the note looks like it was written by a third grader. What kind of impression does that make? Is it any worse than receiving the following message on your Blackberry from your top candidate: “TYVM 4 t interview.”  (Translation = thank you very much for the interview.)

In defense of a generation criticized for sending texts instead of a handwritten note, consider this. Unknown to many hiring managers, even those in their 30s and 40s, is the little-publicized trend that cursive writing has all but been phased out of many school’s curriculum.

Taught for more than 300 years in the United States, cursive writing has been reduced to an independent study, an “as-we-have-time” course in second or third grade. The computer keyboard helped kill shorthand, and now it’s threatening to finish off longhand.

Until the 1970s, penmanship was a separate daily lesson through sixth grade. Zaner-Bloser Handwriting, the most widely used penmanship curriculum, reports that, when cursive writing peaked in the 1940s and ’50s, most teachers insisted on as much as two hours a week. But a 2003 Vanderbilt University survey of primary-grade teachers found that most now spend 10 minutes a day or less on the subject. To adapt to this new reality, the Zaner-Bloser method has been changed to a 15-minute daily plan. When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT exams for the class of 2006, just 15% of the almost 1.5 million students who took the test wrote their answers in cursive. The rest? They printed — in block letters.

For traditionalists, the demise of cursive is an outrage — the loss of a skill, even an art form. But proponents arguing for a young population that is better prepared to work in digital world say there’s no point in wasting students’ time to teach a vestigial skill in a computer age.

The first edge of a gigantic wave of U.S. students graduating from high school and school who no longer get much handwriting instruction in the primary grades is just hitting the workplace. Not only will these students struggle with writing cursive — they can’t read it either.

Ironically, this problem isn’t isolated to poor-performing students, but the best and the brightest. Why? High-performing students are introduced to computers early in their education and rarely, if ever, are required to write longhand. They are never required to learn the skill of writing, or even reading, cursive script. They are taught keyboarding. Just as the pencil replaced charcoal and the ballpoint pen replaced the quill, bits and bytes will replace cursive writing as the primary mode of producing “printed” media.

Many educators shrug at the problem. When the top priority is to teach technology, foreign languages and the material required to pass standardized tests, penmanship instruction just doesn’t seem that important.

So the next time you get a digital message loaded with text lingo or a thank you note that looks like chicken scratch, pause for a moment. Take a deep breath. Then ask yourself: What if the brightest and most talented candidates applying for the job don’t know how to write cursive?  Does it really matter? Will cursive writing improve their performance? Or is this just more sign that the change is really difficult to accept.

Previously posted on Bizmore.com

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