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Why Johnny can't write, and why employers are mad

Can you tell a pronoun from a participle; use commas correctly in long sentences; describe the difference between its and it's?

If not, you have plenty of company in the world of job seekers. Despite stubbornly high unemployment, many employers complain that they can't find qualified candidates for the jobs they do have.

Often, it turns out, the mismatch results from applicants' inadequate communication skills. In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates' inability to speak and write clearly.

(Read more: Job skills gap: the basics become a problem)

Julia Wheeler and Veronika Laws | Digital Vision | Getty Images

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there were a net 204,000 new jobs created in October, though the unemployment rate rose to 7.3 percent. The numbers easily topped economist expectations of 120,000 new nonfarm payroll jobs for the month.

Experts differ on why job candidates can't communicate effectively. Bram Lowsky, an executive vice president of Right Management, the workforce management arm of Manpower, blames technology.

"With Gen X and Gen Y, because everything is shorthand and text, the ability to communicate effectively is challenged," he said. "You see it in the business world, whether with existing employees or job candidates looking for work."

Others say colleges aren't doing a good job. In a survey of 318 employers published earlier this year by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and conducted by Hart Research Associates, 80 percent said colleges should focus more on written and oral communication.

(Read more: Six college courses that help grads land jobs)

William Ellet, an adjunct professor teaching writing at Brandeis International Business School, says the problem starts even earlier. He points out that when the Department of Education in 2012 published what it called "The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2011," just 24 percent of eighth and 12th graders were proficient in writing. From colleges on down, he said, "nobody takes responsibility for writing instruction."

Ellet, who previously taught writing at Harvard Business School, says the problem persists even into business school— and he believes the problem isn't related to technology. "Most new technology is text based," he said, adding that a majority of his students report working with people they have never met and communicating with them largely through email.

"Thirty or 40 years ago, using writing for that wouldn't have been possible," he said, and that makes writing that much more important. "Businesses get that, but I don't think universities do."

Luckily for Ellet, his students have plenty of motivation to improve. "Recruiters and companies are saying, 'Send us a writing sample, and if you don't meet our standards for communication, we are not hiring you,'" he said.

(Read more: Employers: 'Skills gap' is not our problem to fix)

It's not just anecdotal: In a 2011 survey of corporate recruiters by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the organization that administers the standardized test for business school, 86 percent said strong communication skills were a priority—well ahead of the next skill. (Oddly, though, when recruiters were asked in a separate question what changes business schools should make to meet employers' needs, the recruiters overwhelmingly called for something different: practical experience.)

(Read more: HR staffs, recruiters overlook qualified job seekers)

The good news for job seekers is that some companies are providing help with writing. Lowsky estimates that Right Management is seeing an increase of 20 to 25 percent in the number of clients investing in career development for employees, including improving their communication skills.

T. Rowe Price has been working independently on employees' communication skills for some time. With offices in multiple time zones and time sensitive investment decisions to make, the firm's leaders understand that clear communications are essential. A number of senior people at the firm may work with analysts and portfolio managers on their communications, but Garry Cosnett, head of global equity communications, does it full time.

Cosnett spends considerable time with newly hired analysts, helping them learn to organize their writing and make it clear and persuasive. Another part of his job is to read writing samples from prospective hires, often second year MBA candidates. "Sometimes we ask for writing samples even prior to the interview process, and I will take a look at that," he said. "I've been doing this for so long, I have a pretty good sense of what's fixable and what's terminal."

T. Rowe Price tends to hire graduates of the most selective business schools, along with some lateral hires from other firms – but even for this elite group, writing can be a challenge, Cosnett says.

"It's amazing, the frequent disconnect," he said. "These are people who all did the very best at the best schools, probably since preschool, but they really have not developed their writing skills to the degree that they would have to to succeed in this organization."

Some new hires are skeptical, he said. "People think when they first meet me that I'm going to grill them on semicolons." But in fact, he says, he is teaching them what they need in order to succeed at the firm. "You can be the smartest person here, but if you can't convince the portfolio managers to buy what you're selling, you won't be successful." (In Wall Street terms, that means you won't make much money.)

"So much," he said, "is driven by the written word."

—By CNBC's Kelley Holland. Follow her on Twitter @KKelleyHolland.

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