The Talent Gap: College Grads Are Not Getting the Skills Employers Want

 

About a third of all jobs in America require a college degree. Large numbers of people are going to college — over 23 million will be enrolled in college by 2020 — but there’s a big gap between what they’re learning and what employers want. A recently published study finds that many college grads lack skills that employers consider critical, such as problem solving and decision making.

The study, from Hart Research Associates, surveyed 400 employers and focused on skills needed for career success. The skills considered most important included written and oral communication, teamwork, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings. Almost all employers agreed that more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major was the demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems. Interestingly, the study also showed that contrary to conventional wisdom, skills considered not very important by employers (but rated high by students) included awareness of diversity and languages other than English.

The Gap

Every recruiter has met the candidate whose assessment of themselves is at odds with the reality.What the Hart study reveals is that among college grads the problem is endemic. In just about every category of skills considered important by employers, the majority of graduates rated themselves as well prepared, while only a minority of employers saw it the same way. This gap becomes most apparent when it comes to hiring recent grads. Eighty percent of employers consider it very important that recent college graduates demonstrate the ability to apply learning in real-world settings during the hiring process. But only 23 percent of employers report that grads are able to do so.

In an interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock — who heads up all hiring at Google — had this advice for college grads about what to say during an interview. “What you want to do is say: ‘Here’s the attribute I’m going to demonstrate; here’s the story demonstrating it; here’s how that story demonstrated that attribute.’ And here is how it can create value.”

The story demonstrating how to create value can only be told if one has had an actual experience where they got to use their learning. That could be a classroom project, but the experience most valued by employers, as a demonstration of applied learning, is an internship.

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Trouble is that an internship is fairly rare experience. Data from NACE — the National Association of Colleges and Employers — shows that in recent years about 1.5 million internships are filled in the United States annually. That means less than 10 percent of college grads get to do an internship. And among internships it’s paid internships that matter. NACE also reports that while 63 percent of students with a paid internship received at least one job offer, only 37 percent of former unpaid interns did so. Unpaid internships may become less common, as class action lawsuits are being brought against employers and colleges crack down on the practice.

Improving College Education

The majority (70 percent ) of employers think that students should be required to complete an applied-learning project as a condition of graduation. That’s a more practical solution than finding internships, since it’s largely within the control of colleges. But the internship remains the most valued experience. Most employers agree that a recent graduate’s completion of various other types of applied and engaged learning experiences — such as a comprehensive senior project, a collaborative research project, or a community based or service learning project — would also positively influence their hiring decision. However, these all rank behind an internship (or apprenticeship) in their ability to influence hiring decisions.

 

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Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.

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