As an aspiring technical writer, I haven’t been aloof to how technical writing—in practice—is changing from what it—in theory—is often presented to be in much lay and sometimes academic literature. And this is a serious issue to me and to those who are in the same boat. It is not apparent that the apparent changes confronting the traditional technical writer are positive changes that will work to the benefit of the education and experience of those ready to enter the workforce. The case for pessimism can indeed seem strong.
To be sure, there are reasons why things look dreary for the technical writer. This was on no greater display than when a class of we technical communication students spent a few moments exploring job postings for technical writers on the internet. Our conclusion: the jobs were there if you are skillful with the English language and Microsoft Office—and if you were familiar with a certain software suite other than Microsoft Office (who knew in advance what that would be?), and were familiar with hardware, and Department of Defense standards of publications, and knew how to work with a mark-up or programming language, and so on.
Consider that Diane Martinez and colleagues in their widely-used and referenced book, Technical Writing, spend the bulk of their time discussing topics like “purpose, audience analysis, and context,” the “forms of technical writing” (e.g., e-mail, memos, and business letters), how to approach research, and how to write grants and proposals. Gerald J. Alred and colleagues in the likewise well-known Handbook of Technical Writing emphasize such topics as forms of documents (a la Martinez), considerations for design and visuals in one’s documents, job searching, and organization. Now all these topics are critical to the education of tomorrow’s technical writer, but notice how centered they are on matters of language, style, and context with precious little in the way of guidance about all the other knowledge, skills, and abilities that we noted are now being demanded by today’s employer.
In acknowledging the disparity between what technical writers are taught and what employers actually want, and agreeing this deserves some attention by our educational institutions, it’s worth noting that recognition is growing that employers can be unrealistically demanding of applicants: Back in 2011 Peter Cappelli wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal where he noted, “With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time.” This year, he’s still beating the drum where on the HBR Blog he writes this insightful tidbit, “Some of the cost-cutting took out recruiters. They used to be the people pushing back on hiring managers, asking “do you really need someone with a graduate degree to do this job?” or telling them, “you aren’t going to find someone with 10 years of experience at that salary.”” As post–recession-recovery realism sets in for employers who cannot fill their positions, I suspect the intimidating demands will become more reasonable.
That said, technical writers—aspiring or otherwise—should be on the lookout for continuing education opportunities that are being held in their area. A simple search on the internet can give you information about local opportunities; this especially applies if you live near a college or other institution of higher learning. Also reassuring is O*NET’s projection that technical writing is expected to grow at an average pace—some 10%–19%. Perhaps we ought not be so pessimistic after all.
— Dane Parker