Employers Want Workplace-Ready Grads, but Can Higher Ed Deliver? | From the Bell Tower

A new survey reveals a wide gap between provosts and business leaders when it comes to judging college students’ readiness for the workplace. What can academic librarians take away from the controversy?
Steven BellA new survey reveals a wide gap between provosts and business leaders when it comes to judging college students’ readiness for the workplace. What can academic librarians take away from the controversy? As the cost of college tuition has skyrocketed in the past decade, students' and parents' expectations for a graduate’s state of career readiness have grown. And as the job market continues to offer limited opportunity for college graduates, students look to build any and every personal advantage. These factors find their way into the curriculum in many ways, from writing intensive courses that address business correspondence to the development of specialized certificates that students can tack on to their diplomas to show they have workplace skills. While there is pressure on colleges and universities to do a better job of readying students for the workplace and job placement, there is a fine line between a college education and vocational preparation. If the results of a new survey of business leaders is an indicator, then higher education is failing quite spectacularly at preparing students for the workplace.

Disagreement on Student Skills

When Inside Higher Ed surveyed provosts in 2014, it asked them to rate the effectiveness of their institutions in preparing students for success in the workforce. Ninety-six percent of the provosts said they were doing a good job. Turns out that provosts may be living in a fantasy world where their students can do no wrong. According to a Gallup survey of 628 business leaders and 1,012 members of the public, just 11 percent of the business leaders and 14 percent of the public strongly agreed that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. That’s a huge discrepancy, and while some provosts pointed to flaws in the poll, the results suggest higher education leaders must pay closer attention to what business leaders seek in new graduates. For example, knowledge of and applied practice in the field were among the business leaders' most sought-after skill in new graduates. Far fewer, just nine percent, see value in the name and reputation of that graduate’s institution. For these business leaders, it’s what you know and not where you got your degree that matters.

Birth of a New Industry

Knowing that there is a widespread perception among business owners and hiring managers that college graduates are far from workplace ready, a new industry has arisen to fill the gap. Companies are emerging to offer fast-track postgraduate programs that help graduates quickly master the skills that employers seek—and some colleges are teaming up with them to offer postgraduate boot camps in the ways of the workplace. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, companies such as General Assembly, FullBridge, and Koru offer different types of specialties. General Assembly teaches technology and computer skills. FullBridge focuses on business skills, and Koru provides coaching from business executives. Koru became the first firm to create partnerships with multiple universities to deliver, for a postgraduation fee, what it describes as “an immersive learning program that bridges the gap between today's college graduates and the needs of high-growth employers.” If colleges and universities are openly inviting Koru in to get their graduates ready for the workplace, it speaks volumes about their own lack of confidence in being able to prepare students properly for the work world that awaits them. Alternately, it may signal that some institutions are conceding that their strength is giving students a liberal education and that workplace readiness is best left to the experts.

Seeking Information Skills

When it comes to information search, retrieval, and analysis skills—the type of general knowledge we refer to as information literacy—the Gallup survey reveals nothing about business leader views. Despite that, thanks to the sixth Project Information Literacy (PIL) report, we know employers, when asked, will tell us what they think of and expect from college graduates when it comes to information skills. Released in October 2012, the report looks at how college graduates solve information problems in the workplace. Employers expected students to be proficient at online searching, which included both free web resources and the subscription databases found at academic libraries. While students tended to think they were able successfully to work with methods they used at college, the employers believed student were less well prepared than expected. For example, employers thought students rushed too much on research tasks and depended too heavily on search engines. What they want are students who demonstrate patience and persistence, as well as an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of different information resources. Reading this PIL report leads one to conclude that students are failing to graduate with the appropriate information research skills expected by employers.

Paying More Attention to Employers

Academic librarians, by themselves, are in no position to fill the gap that exists between college graduates’ state of job preparedness and the expectations of employers. It will likely require a massive rethinking of what workplace skills could be delivered across the course of a college education—and it would help to start talking to the people who do the hiring. While what we academic librarians like to refer to as “lifelong learning” skills means more than just knowing how to search databases and produce the research that employers expect, we need to start somewhere in contributing to our students’ preparation for the workplace. Perhaps we ought to follow the lead of the companies offering job preparation boot camps and offer seniors an intensive “research skills for the workplace” learning experience. Between what we can learn from Project Information Literacy, studies of employer expectations, and conversations with those doing the hiring, we could help students make up for what they missed when they were short on attention during those library instruction sessions. But don’t worry so much about their citation skills. That’s one thing employers told Project Information Literacy that they just didn’t care about at all.
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Hi Dan. Thanks for sharing those additional resources with readers. You make a good point that many of our students need to graduate with the skill sets that employers are most interested in. It is good news for academic librarians, as we are well positioned to provide the research and information seeking skills employers expect our grads to have. I think we do need to balance that with understanding of how scholarship is produced. They may not need it on that first job, but it can help to instill the deeper thinking and analytical skills that will help our students with their lifelong learning pursuits.

Posted : Mar 24, 2014 04:58


If those skills are so important to employers I wish they would just hire me (an underemployed librarian) to do the job. Oh right, it is because I am not a recent grad, but rather 50 years old and thus, in the view of corporate America, ready to be put out to pasture. There is something profoundly wrong with the way business thinks nowadays. They could hire some middle aged people who have been literally destroyed by the recession and they could teach college grads.

Posted : Mar 24, 2014 04:58

Dan Gjelten

Steven, great post. I have been watching this phenomenon for a few years. There are other examples of surveys of the employers who hire our graduates which suggest that we are not necessarily providing them with a "product" that they are satisfied with. See, for example, "Raising the Bar: Employers' Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn" conducted by Hart Research Associates (http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf) which finds that a majority of employers believe that colleges should place greater emphasis on skills like "the ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information form multiple sources." I've also followed surveys by the University of Washington, among others, of alums five or ten years after graduation, in which they ask about the most important skills these alumni need in their daily lives. Consistently, we see information seeking skills - locating, evaluating, analyzing information...and using technology effectively as being the most important in their roles as employees, employers, citizens, consumers and all the roles we have. (See more at https://www.washington.edu/oea/pdfs/reports/OEAReport0902.pdf) In a way, as you suggest, I consider this good news for academic libraries, as those are the skills we provide to students - in collaboration with classroom faculty, of course. At most of our institutions, we are not developing tomorrow's scholars. Be we are, I hope, helping to provide the next generation with the skills they need to work, lead, vote and generally navigate an information-rich and technology-rich world more effectively because of the work of the academic library at their alma mater. Dan Gjelten, University of St. Thomas Libraries, St. Paul, MN

Posted : Mar 20, 2014 03:05



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