When karen Bauer – who spells her first name with a lowercase “k” – started at Bismarck State College, the school’s communication department had only a newspaper and literary magazine. Now it has a digital studio and a larger focus on the many tools that make up today’s world of mass communication.

Bauer, the school’s assistant professor of journalism and the executive director of the North Dakota Student Media Association, said communication has not only affected her life and career but is a skill from which people in all professions may benefit.

Bismarck State and other institutions of higher learning told Prairie Business that companies are reaching out, telling the schools what they are seeking in potential new hires. On their list: good communication skills.

Even in her more narrowly focused path of media communication, businesses are telling Bauer they want to hire employees who have good interpersonal skills as well as writing and social media skills.

“I just interviewed a few people from our advisory committee not long ago and at the top of their list was writing skills,” she said. “They all want that writing piece. … It really kind of surprised me, even the broadcast people want more skilled workers who know how to write.”

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

Other sought-after skills include technical understanding, including knowing how to produce photos and videos, and how to use software programs such as InDesign and Photoshop.

Because of the demands from the business world, these are some of the skills the school’s communication department makes sure it focuses on.

To help give students hands-on experience in the world of mass comm, the department has a group called Mystic Media, which includes a newspaper and magazine, broadcast video production, and audio radio stations. They also gain experience promoting their work via social media.

“They have to promote Mystic Media, and so they are required to shoot out social media posts each week,” Bauer said.

She said the school offers a class that teaches students how to best use social media to promote their work and professionally connect with others in today’s media-heavy world.

“I should probably take that class,” she said. “Everyone should probably take that class.”

That’s the sum and substance of today’s mass media, which looks different than yesterday’s mass media: It’s not just for news junkies anymore. Social media – and communication skills in general, Bauer said – are traits that most any business should have in the digital age.

Revamping communication

Debora Dragseth, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at Dickinson State University in Dickinson, N.D., said she has been in higher education for more than three decades and communication has always been an important life skill in her work and personal settings.

More and more businesses are demanding skill sets under the communication category these days. They want to hire people who are good at communicating, which also means computer and other tech skills that enhance communication in the digital age. Social media skills are a plus.

As such, Dickinson State University is revamping its communication department. Until now it was a generic department, not specializing in any particular area.

Pending approval from the faculty senate, the bachelor in communication degree from DSU will get a facelift in the upcoming 2021-2022 catalog, according to information from the school that was sent to Prairie Business. Changes include giving multiple options or tracks for students to pursue, depending on their interests and career goals.

“We looked at both what was trending in higher education and what students had indicated were their interests,” Dr. Jeremy Wohletz, chair of the Department of Arts and Letters, said in a prepared statement to the magazine. Future communication majors will have the option to specialize in corporate communication, digital communication or public communication.

Each option has a number of electives that further allows the student to secure necessary skill sets for their desired career path. The corporate communication option, for instance, provides an opportunity for highly focused learning in the range of communication types for and by various types of organizations.

The digital communication option provides an opportunity for students with an interest in digital aspects of contemporary communication, such as blogging, podcasts or other forms of social media. This option will also benefit from the current renovations in Pulver Hall, which includes a podcasting room and television studio.

Lastly, the public communication option is similar to the school’s traditional communication program. According to Dr. Eric Grabowsky, associate professor of communication, “The three options will continue our educational work in emphasizing consistently the theory, practice, and ethics of communication.”

Also to enhance the program, Dragseth said the DSU also will now offer an Excellence in Communication Badge, which basically is a verifiable credential that can be made available to potential employers.

She said she hears from companies that say they can train new hires to use software or programs and tasks, but it is tougher for businesses to teach them verbal and writing skills.

The badge allows a business to see that a potential new hire has achieved a competent level of communication skills while in school.

To receive a badge students must earn an A or B in three courses: English Composition I, English Composition II, and Fundamentals of Speech.

Communication in agriculture

Among the varying categories of emphasis in the communication program at the University of Minnesota Crookston campus is agriculture.

“Or ag-comm as we call it,” said Mark Huglen, department chair for Humanities, Social Sciences and Education. “We have an array of courses and credits in agriculture to really build a vocabulary. … It becomes a pretty nice major for people who are interested in agriculture, at whatever level, and then to be able to understand and develop the skills of communication in that field.”

Amber Johnson, a communications student at the University of Minnesota Crookston, speaks during a class presentation at the school.
Amber Johnson, a communications student at the University of Minnesota Crookston, speaks during a class presentation at the school. Image: Courtesy of UMN Crookston

Every communication student at the campus learns strategic skills in speaking, writing and technology trends, as well as interpersonal communication skills such as building effective relationships and learning persuasion and argumentation skills.

“Those are our core skills and then students can branch off and go into other areas to develop more knowledge,” Huglen said, ag comm being one of them.

“Think of how huge the food and beverage industry is,” he said. “Working within an organization, a job could be in sales, it could be in management, it could be in the public relations department and using social media. It could be advocacy. There are a lot of jobs in the political realm. There's a lot of political maneuvering within any area, including agriculture, and so, really, the jobs are endless. This kind of just grounds them in that field, communication-wise, with all those different types of topics, so they can be ready to tackle that ag field.”

Graphic design, sports information, and research are other areas that require good communication skills. Ministry services, too, and the school’s communication department has many programs that call under its umbrella.

“Graduates in particular who say they are interested in youth ministry – they want to be better communicators,” Huglen said. “The comm-studies area is really conducive to being able to craft the program that students want; it could be very theoretical depending on what a student wants.”

All things considered, he said, mass communication is not only about the news media anymore. In today’s world it encompasses many platforms and services.

Bauer, from Bismarck State, defended the news media in a time when it is often belittled, while also reiterating that communication is important for any business and its employees.

“The bottom line is communication is everywhere, it doesn't matter what field you go into,” she said. “If you go into the health industry, you'll find health care people need communication skills. Agriculture, the same thing. Energy – we have someone from Basin Electric on our advisory committee who is on the communications team at the company. You've got communications everywhere you look.

“I think the media in general has taken a bad rap lately, but I think it's so necessary for us to be a society that knows what's going on. So yeah, I think communication is a skill that anyone could tap into in any industry. I think that everyone should have some kind of communication classes behind them, and our program is open to everyone.”

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 701-780-1276 or aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com