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Preparing Students for a Tough Job Market

Help students now--while they're still in school--to improve their marketability.
University Business, Sep 2004

The National Center for Education Statistics predicts that approximately 1.2 million students will graduate this spring; by 2008, that figure is expected to double. In the postgraduate job market, however, the traditional economy is offering few solutions. Normally, the recovery from an economic downturn is accompanied by a proportionate increase in jobs, but not this time. Two years into recovery, we should be up by 7 million jobs; instead we're down 2.5 million.

Yet productivity is soaring, which suggests that the national economy is undergoing a long-term structural change. After all, previous upturns have resulted in an increase in the creation of jobs, so why not this one? College students have undoubtedly read about the slow growth in jobs and wondered not only why this is happening, but also whether they themselves will be able to find work. And, although the Bureau of Labor Statistics' jobs reports were somewhat encouraging earlier this year, the statistics don't take into account such things as the number of opportunities in different fields, or the quality of jobs becoming open. For example, many of the newly employed are those who are forced to settle for part-time work in lieu of full-time opportunities, and the data doesn't include "discouraged workers" who have given up on the search.

Also, the industries doing the greatest amount of hiring are relatively limited, whereas hiring in manufacturing, telecommunications, and professional services remains problematic.

One reason for this apparent economic dichotomy is the fact that companies are contending with a difficult and intensely competitive business climate. With little pricing power, the solution for most companies seeking to protect their bottom line is to boost productivity while cutting costs. In the hard-hit manufacturing sector, for example, new technologies have enabled firms to produce more goods with fewer workers, or to shift operations to less expensive labor markets overseas.

The job market for recent
graduates is far less promising
than it was when these same
students entered college.

Now, however, this practice is spreading to the service sector, resulting in more service-oriented "office" jobs being outsourced to foreign companies. In the meantime, wages are being reduced, higher-paid personnel are being laid off, and part-time positions are increasing. Complicating this scenario is the probability that this particular economic condition is unlikely to change anytime soon. Although we will see some job growth over the next few years, these structural changes to the economy, in which productivity outstrips the labor force, are likely to persist for some time. In addition, new college graduates entering the job market will be competing both with other graduates and with individuals who have more years of experience, because in some cases these same individuals have been laid off due to downsizing. In addition, the job market for both new and recent graduates is far less promising than it was when these same students entered college, which may influence how well prepared they are in facing an unpredictable and competitive postgraduate environment. And even though productivity levels tend to fluctuate, and the ratio of labor input to production output cyclically stabilizes and produces higher employment, in most fields the creation of new jobs will never return to historical levels. Therefore, it is important to help students now, while they're still in school, to improve their marketability.

Unfortunately, this marketability is often defined far too narrowly, with an overemphasis on specific vocation-oriented majors. These pre-professional programs have often been presented as the best (or only) way to prepare students for the postgraduate world, when for many students the opposite may be true. By focusing now on acquiring a sound liberal arts and sciences education that encompasses a wide range of key skills, attributes, and experiences, these graduates will have just as strong a chance for success in the job market as graduates with a pre-professional major. And there are certain steps in that process that will be immensely helpful in improving students' marketability, regardless of what their major is or the profession they pursue.

We must hold students to the highest standards in their studies and activities. Students often hesitate to study a particular academic discipline; in some cases they lack confidence in their ability to complete the course, but more often they simply fail to see the course's relevance in terms of a career. By not limiting themselves, they'll better develop their critical thinking skills and creative approaches to problem solving, as well as expand their perspective and knowledge base on a variety of topics. In this increasingly unpredictable world of work, they'll be better prepared for change, complexity, and ambiguity if they learn how to learn rather than just what to learn.

This will help students see the value of their education while learning about themselves in the process. These experiences can help students learn what they like and don't like, where their greatest talents lie, and what they're truly passionate about. And by exploring different jobs, students can see whether there's a match between their own values and the values of those who are drawn to a particular industry. It often happens that internships evolve into full-time positions when students graduate; at the very least prospective employers will look at an internship as valuable experience. And when students need to show an interest in a particular field, internships are often their best answer.

Along with their resume, they should include the activities they've organized or volunteered for, competitions they've entered, or artistic works they've completed. This "co-curricular transcript" gives employers a much broader picture of a student's experience, interests, and talents, and will often stimulate conversations about why the student has made certain choices and the values those choices represent. Most important, it shows the employer that the student has tried something new and succeeded. This demonstrates the broad-based creative thinking that organizations look for, and provides a clear picture of the student, what he or she has chosen to do, and the experience, talent, and potential that student possesses.

They will certainly need them. Automation and systems utilization will only increase in the years to come, and basic computer literacy is no longer enough to keep up with dynamic technologies. Technological proficiency provides our students with an immediate advantage, regardless of the career they choose. This is no longer an option in today's work environment; it's a requirement.

This is a lifetime skill that will prove invaluable as they enter or move throughout the job market. But teaching this skill involves more than giving our students informational handouts. Instead, we should actively encourage them to do their homework when job hunting, see the value of informational interviews, learn the "dos and don'ts" of networking, and use the school's career and alumni offices for contacts and information about different professions.

This places an emphasis on interpersonal skills, an area often underdeveloped in today's vocation-driven education. Many of today's companies are seeking out employees who have a proven ability to deal with all the nuances of business relations, including conflict resolution within teams, multiple approaches to problem solving, and effective, inclusive management skills. And the more diverse the team members, the better--students might even consider an overseas experience to broaden their perspective. But, they also need to be reminded that this experience should be seen as meaningful and educational--not as just another vacation.

Internships, for example, are one area where students can gain experience in making presentations; but regardless of the circumstances, they need to write and make presentations where they'll be critiqued. Students should especially practice in situations where they have to communicate with all types of audiences. The previous emphasis on technical proficiency alone has now been expanded to include effective writing, speaking, listening, and time management skills. This practice should start well before the actual resume is written; once students are actively seeking jobs, good communication should be second nature. The need for sound communication training is all too apparent in the numerous mistakes made with resumes, cover letters, and interviews, and often determines the student's success in securing good employment. The more we work to develop these practical skills in our students, the better we'll prepare them for a competitive job market.

To put it simply, what these seven steps define is a well-rounded academic and co-curricular program. If we guide our students with these steps in mind, they will learn much about themselves, what they're good at, and what they enjoy doing. Most importantly, they will build exactly the right experiences that will qualify them for any entry-level position in a tough job market, regardless of the career they choose. In the final analysis, it will be their education, their ability to think creatively, and their willingness to try new and difficult things that will enhance not only their marketability, but the quality of their lives as well.

Lee Higdon is president of the College of Charleston (SC).

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