November 16 2012

College Graduate Skills Gap

Vicki E. Alger

 

College costs are rising, along with student debt. Students are worried about finding good jobs—in part to pay off all their student loans.

The New York Times’ Robert Goldfarb recently spoke with a number of CEO’s about their struggles to find qualified college graduates to hire.

Every C.E.O. I met described recent graduates as lacking the skills and discipline required in today’s workplace. They complained that young employees deemed themselves entitled to promotion before mastering their assigned tasks. All concluded, in effect, “Let them grow up on someone else’s payroll.”

I replied that my interviews with young people showed that many had records of part-time jobs and excellent grades at selective schools that seemed to make them promising candidates. But executives countered that recent graduates had emerged from universities whose weakened requirements didn’t prepare them for the complex jobs that companies must now fill. …

It’s true that companies are actively seeking petroleum engineers, systems designers, supply-chain analysts and other graduates armed with “hard” skills. But those who majored in English, philosophy, history and other liberal arts subjects are far less likely to be offered an interview, much less a job.

At one time, employers recruited liberal arts graduates whose broad education shaped an inquiring mind and the ability to evaluate conflicting points of view. Their education also brought a freshness of vision that saw alternatives to outdated practices. Graduates entered corporate training programs armed mainly with potential, but soon absorbed business disciplines. Veteran employees seeing that growth didn’t laugh when a trainee suggested a different approach to a chronic problem.

Rotating through departments let young people showcase their abilities; the most promising were selected by managers eager to mentor them. Several C.E.O.’s I spoke with, including those most critical of recent graduates, had this type of training. Today, such programs are more likely to recruit those with immediately applicable skills that can be honed on the job. As one hiring manager told me: “We no longer have the luxury to hire bench strength. If an applicant isn’t ready to step into an open job we don’t hire them.”

Harsh words—especially to those of us whose degrees are in the liberal arts. But whether you’re an engineering major or a political philosophy major, you have to know the market you plan to enter, as well as back-up markets. It’s up to you to make a candid assessment of what skills you do and don’t have and adjust accordingly.

Most important, no one owes you a job. So if you can’t land one in your immediate field, don’t be afraid to look outside what you thought would be your chosen profession. It’s a big exciting world, and there’s always room for more talent.

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