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Professional Opinion

Meeting today’s workforce needs

College administrators need to make strategic decisions to ensure that students’ educational experiences sync with employer and industry expectations.
University Business, December 2013

In today’s competitive higher education market, colleges and universities must prove the value of the degrees they bestow to graduates each year. Traditional measures, such as graduation rates, grade point averages, and cohort default rates, have become only a few of the ways colleges and universities are evaluated. Students and their parents want to be assured that their investment in a college education will pay off in the form of a self-sustaining and financially-secure career path. Therefore, colleges are now in a position where they are asked to justify their abilities and success in producing graduates with the skills and credentials needed to get jobs. As a result, college administrators need to make strategic decisions to ensure that students’ educational experiences sync with employer and industry expectations.

Today, more and more college administrators want to identify employer expectations and structure students’ educational experiences accordingly. With the rise of the knowledge economy and advancements in technology, employers are looking for college graduates who meet the workforce needs of traditional, as well as the emerging industries (e.g. energy, healthcare and information technology). This rapidly changing environment is challenging campus administrators to find ways to ensure that students graduate with the skills and training needed to be attractive to employers in these fields.

The Melior Group recently conducted a qualitative study of 50 hiring managers and top executives at major employers across the United States to find out what they are looking for when hiring and promoting college graduates. We’ve learned that there is a concern among many employers that today’s colleges have lost much of the rigor they used to have two decades ago. The perception is that “basic fundamentals” or “workplace skills” are being left out of the curriculum.

This is not to say that technical skills specific to a particular field of study aren’t important. In fact, they can be “must haves” to demonstrate competency in a particular field of interest. But employers are realistic -- they train all new employees (recent college graduates or not) on the intricacies of the position at hand, prep them for the corporate culture, and provide training specific to their own organization’s needs. What they do expect, however, is that college graduates have a solid foundation of the BASICS– yes, Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and other skills that translate into solid employees, which include problem solving, critical thinking and oral communication skills.

In fact, there are several key skills that these employers see as essential in any good employee – and are expected skills of every college graduate.

  • Writing and oral communication skills are critical for thriving in today’s workforce, yet the employers we spoke to see this as lacking among today’s college grads. The frustration expressed is about individuals who may be expert in engineering, for example, but who cannot express themselves in a professional setting to other colleagues, corporate partners, vendors or other external audiences. Said one hiring manager: “What good is an employee who 1) can’t explain what the issue is and 2) who can’t come up with (and clearly explain) viable solutions to address the issue?” 
  • Employers also believe that problem solving and critical thinking are missing from the skill set of today’s college graduates. Employers are looking for creative, innovative problem solvers, often involving independent problem solving (“doing it yourself”), collaboration in an interdisciplinary approach, or having an understanding of the resources available – and knowing when and how to use these resources to solve the problem. 
  • Embracing cross-disciplinary collaboration (between one or more departments) in the workforce is seen as progressive and innovative and is a difficult mindset to find among college graduates: “We need people who are willing to collaborate in an interdisciplinary way – get out of silos and see the big picture. Not many understand the advantages to doing this.” 
  • Increasingly, college grads are expected to have “real world” experience. However, this really doesn’t mean experience in a specific profession, but a recognition and acceptance of the world around them, in any form of business or operational setting. The skills acquired in any business environment (e.g., building professional relationships, organization and time management) are valuable to potential employers. “Real world” experience also means that students are exposed to diverse populations and have the ability to demonstrate cultural sensitivity.

What does this mean for college administrators?

The first step is to take a good look at their school’s current offerings and ask a few key questions based on the skills outlined above. For example:

  • Does my college offer the programs and coursework that foster the skills listed above?
  • Do all majors incorporate internships into their curricula so that “real world” experience can be gained? 
  • Are students offered opportunities to interact with diverse cultures and, perhaps, to travel abroad?
  • Do our technical and scientific programs include sufficient writing, communication and public speaking requirements? Is communication multi-factorial?
  • Are students encouraged to participate in group projects? 
  • Are there supports within the college that teach time management and organization skills?

The next step is for colleges and universities to build new relationships and improve current relationships with employers. During the research process, Melior discovered that executives at top firms are eager to share their concerns and expectations of college graduates. Hiring managers have strong opinions on the type of education and skills they want from new employees—and they are willing to communicate these preferences to educators. Based on our research, we encourage college and university administrators to have similar conversations with employers and take their recommendations into consideration when designing programs to produce successful, employable graduates.

—Linda McAleer is president of The Melior Group, a Philadelphia-based marketing research and consulting firm specializing in research for service sector providers, with an emphasis in higher education and healthcare.