Employer Engagement

The Employer-College Disconnect

By Carol D’Amico, Executive Vice President for National Engagement and Philanthropy, USA Funds

Carol D'AmicoDo today’s college graduates have the knowledge and problem-solving skills needed to succeed in the workplace? The answer depends on whom you ask.

College academic officers say yes. A survey by the Gallup organization found that 96 percent of chief academic officers believe their institutions are preparing their students to succeed in the workplace.

College students are less confident of their readiness for the workforce. In a 2015 survey of college students by the publishing company McGraw-Hill, just 35 percent of the respondents said college was effective in preparing them for a job, and only 20 percent felt very prepared. Indeed, more than half reported that they were leaving college without knowing how to write a résumé, prepare for a job interview, or search for a job.

Employers are harder to impress. A separate Gallup poll found that only 11 percent of employers strongly agree that recent college grads are adequately prepared for the work world. And 17 percent strongly disagree. Lackluster assessments by employers are underscored by the results from a respected college learning assessment exam, which is administered by the Council for Aid to Education, and shows that two-fifths of college graduates cannot demonstrate proficiency in critical thinking or written communication skills.

What’s more, college diplomas are proving to be insufficient measures of recent graduates’ readiness for the work world or indicators of their ability to hit the ground running. Neither is a record of what an individual studies. A study conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 55 percent of employers say college transcripts are not really useful in evaluating graduates’ career readiness.  Ditto for that time-honored metric, the student’s grade point average. In fact, according to a top executive at Google, a job performance analysis of Google hires found that college GPAs “don’t predict anything.”

The business community is telling us that employers value knowledge and applied skills more than where prospective employees went to school or even their choice of college major.  In a survey conducted in late 2013, Gallup and the Lumina Foundation asked business leaders to rate the importance of four factors used in evaluating job candidates.

The results:

  • 98% of the execs rated depth of knowledge as important or very important.
  • 95% said ability to apply their knowledge and skills was important or very important.
  • 70% said a candidate’s college major was important or very important.
  • In contrast, 54% said where the diploma came from was not important.

Business Leaders Value Knowledge and Applied Skills

These research findings do not mean that employers do not value higher education.  They’re telling us that employers are looking for workers who have the necessary education and training and that hiring managers need better ways to gauge whether job candidates have the desired skills and knowledge.

One way schools can address students’ career-readiness needs is to start thinking of themselves as an integral part of the talent supply chain and proactively seek a more informed relationship with employers to improve curriculum, create training resources, and expand internship opportunities that enable students to apply their knowledge and problem-solving skills in the workplace. Internships are widely regarded as valuable learning experiences, but most undergraduates don’t have the opportunity to participate in a meaningful internship. The number of internships available annually is estimated at 1.5 million, and research indicates that only about a third of those internships provide meaningful work experiences.

A number of colleges are developing competency-based degree programs, which require students to earn credits by demonstrating mastery — not just proficiency — of course material, which means demonstrating how to apply their acquired knowledge skills. An added bonus: A competency-based program transcript may prove more useful to prospective employers when evaluating a job candidate’s credentials.

Students clearly are expecting a return on their college investment: a satisfying job and a decent paycheck. Educators should take note of the McGraw-Hill finding that three in five students want more time to focus on career preparation and want their colleges to offer courses specifically designed to build career skills.

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