Mel Evans/Associated Press
Jeffrey Canas, of Union City, N.J., expressed his postgraduation expectations at Rutgers University last month.
By ALINA TUGEND
Published: June 28, 2013
MY older son graduated from high school last week and has started a pleasant job as a summer lifeguard. In four years we expect to attend his college graduation, and we hope the time there leaves him with great experiences, a love of learning and some idea how to get and keep a job.
It’s that last part of the equation that I’m going to focus on. My heart sinks every time I read a news story or opinion piece quoting employers who charge that four-year colleges and universities are failing to provide graduates with the skills they need to become and remain employable.
Of course, in many ways, this isn’t a new story.
“A four-year liberal arts education doesn’t prepare kids for work and it never has,” said Alec R. Levenson a senior research scientist for the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California.
Mara Swan, the executive vice president of global strategy and talent at Manpower Group, agreed.
“There’s always been a gap between what colleges produce and what employers want,” she said. “But now it’s widening.” That’s because workplaces are more complex and globalized, profit margins are slimmer, companies are leaner and managers expect their workers to get up to speed much faster than in the past.
“Employers are under pressure to do more with less,” Ms. Swan said.
Unemployment rates for those with bachelor’s degrees or higher are still much better — at 3.8 percent in May — than those with only a high school diploma, which was 7.4 percent in May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nonetheless, a special report by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace published in March found that about half of 704 employers who participated in the study said they had trouble finding recent college graduates qualified to fill positions at their company.
But, surprisingly, it wasn’t necessarily specific technical skills that were lacking.
“When it comes to the skills most needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving,” the report said.
Jaime S. Fall, a vice president at the HR Policy Association, an organization of chief human resources managers from large employers, said these findings backed up what his organization was hearing over and over from employers.
Young employees “are very good at finding information, but not as good at putting that information into context,” Mr. Fall said. “They’re really good at technology, but not at how to take those skills and resolve specific business problems.”
This isn’t a dilemma just in this country, but around the world, Ms. Swan said. A global study conducted last year of interviews with 25,000 employers found that nine out of 10 employees believed that colleges were not fully preparing students for the workplace.
“There were the same problems,” she said. “Problems with collaboration, interpersonal skills, the ability to deal with ambiguity, flexibility and professionalism.”
But it’s easy for the issue to degenerate into finger-pointing.
“If you sat down with a committee of professors, and told them students are not coming out with the skills they need, they would say, ‘you’re smoking something,’ ” Mr. Levenson said. “The trouble is, those skills are applied in a college context, not a workplace context.”
But, he added, “you can’t create a school-based curriculum that can help someone transition to being highly productive on the job in 10 days.”
In other words, the onus shouldn’t just be on universities; employers also need to step up to the plate.
The in-depth training programs and apprenticeships of the past are unlikely to come back, so companies must become more innovative in helping young employees come up to speed, according to a report released in May by Accenture, a management consulting and outsourcing company.
“Rather than simply bemoaning the inability to find employees with the skills required for available jobs, organizations must step up with new and more comprehensive enterprise learning strategies,” Accenture stated in a summary of The Accenture 2013 College Graduate Employment Survey, which queried 1,010 students graduating from college in 2013 and 1,005 who graduated in 2011 and 2012.
The problem, it said, is that most recent college graduates expect employers to provide on-the-ground training, but most of them don’t actually receive it.
“Based on these findings, as well as our own work with hundreds of companies around the world, it is hard to deny the conclusion that many employers have overblown expectations for the skills of new hires — believing falsely that recent college graduates should be able to hit the ground running,” the summary added.
Katherine LaVelle, who leads Accenture’s Talent and Organization group for North America, said the employers they talked to seemed more concerned about the lack of specific technical skills than broad ones like communication. But the overall issue of preparedness remains the same.
“Universities are not in the job of vocational training but they are in the job of evolving,” Ms. LaVelle said. “The magic lies in finding a model that’s appropriate for students to build skills, but palatable and effective for employers as well.”
It would seem that the job internships that college students, and increasingly post-college students, participate in would help prepare students for the working world, but experts say most are too short and not substantial enough. Longer, more in-depth ones at prominent companies are highly competitive.
“They’re incredibly helpful, but they’re not a cure-all,” Mr. Fall said.
There is clearly no one answer, but the most important issue is communication between all sides, said Karin Fischer, a staff writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, who helped write up the survey results.
“To what extent are employers and colleges having a conversation about what they really need?” she asked. “We see this more in the community college arena. Maybe we need more back and forth.”
It’s not that colleges and companies haven’t been trying to figure this out — and with varying success. In 2008, the Boeing Company ranked colleges based on how well their graduates performed within the corporation. The results weren’t made public, but Boeing did share them with colleges.
Richard Stephens, a former senior vice present of human resources and management at Boeing, told The Chronicle that some colleges took the findings seriously and worked with the company to refine their curriculums, while others dismissed them.
Boeing used that information to determine where the aerospace company focused its internship programs and hiring.
But a spokesman for Boeing said there were no plans for another such evaluation, saying it was “difficult to measure individuals in such a big company and difficult to implement over the long term.”
One way the industry is reaching out directly to new entrants in the work force is through a Web site, Jobipedia.org, started by the HR Policy Association. An employee posts a question and recruiters for the companies that participate answer it. One question may elicit several answers from different perspectives.
About 20 major companies — such as Gap, Merck and American Express — participated. And some 50 colleges, including Cornell, Duke University and Georgia Institute of Technology, have made the Web site available to students at their college career centers.
The questions range from career planning to interview issues to on the job concerns. For example, “Is it O.K. to have a drink at a business lunch?” elicited four responses. The consensus: Best to avoid it.
As Mr. Fall said, “colleges can’t be either/or anymore — a trade school or a liberal arts college. We need skilled people with well-rounded backgrounds and the ability to think constructively.”
You hear that, son?
A version of this article appeared in print on June 29, 2013, on page B6 of the New York edition with the headline: What It Takes to Make New College Graduates Employable.