A More Honest Approach to College Career Preparation

Surveys say many students unprepared for the job search

Thirty-one percent of employers believe that recent graduates are unprepared or very unprepared for their job search. That’s according to a study of over 700 employers, conducted in late fall 2012 by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace, titled “The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions”.

That students lack the skills to find work in 2013 may be a surprise to those who foot the bills for their education, or teach in the halls of academe. But it’s no shock to many in the career services field, who find most students unwilling to devote even half an hour a week in their senior year to the job search.

The messages given to students from the first year on need to be changed

Before blaming students for being “career slackers”, colleges should consider the messages they send to students. Viewbooks tout the success of a university’s graduates, but they often selectively use data that implies exceptional results. Often, data is based on response rates of under 20% of graduating seniors. Rarely do pre-matriculation materials tell the real story of what happens to the “average” graduate.

The problem of educating students about career preparation goes far beyond admissions brochures. How many schools tell students at convocation or orientation that they should be thinking about building career skills at the same time that they are developing their intellectual capacity? Too many students think if they got into a good school, they’ll get a good job. No problem!

Students need to know what really matters to employers

In the absence of accurate information, students flock to majors like economics and business, because they believe it will be their ticket to a job. It is up to colleges to bust the myths about major and GPA that have become common lore among students, and provide advising that can help students navigate paths to their desired area of employment.

Some of the most surprising findings of the report titled “The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions” include the following:

  • 78% of employers will consider any major. Only 19% of employers look for specific majors and do not consider candidates without them
  • Work experience (particularly internships and other work during school) is more important to employers than academic credentials, including GPA, and college major
  • An internship is the single most important credential for recent college graduates to have on their resume
  • Most interviewers value extracurricular activities, like professional clubs, athletics and service, more than GPA
  • The skills employers find most lacking in job candidates are written and oral communication skills, adaptability, managing multiple priorities, making decisions, and problem solving
  • Employers want students to improve their knowledge of the organization and industry to which they are applying, and should do a better job of interviewing

Colleges should articulate how students can gain the knowledge, skills and experience required by employers

Data gathered February through March 2013 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), highlight other important skills that employers seek in entry-level college graduates. Each college and university should take this information and lay out for students how they can acquire these skills both inside and outside the classroom. Skills are listed in order of priority to employers:

  • Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
  • Ability to make decisions and solve problems
  • Ability to obtain and process information
  • Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work
  • Ability to analyze quantitative data
  • Technical knowledge related to the job
  • Proficiency with computer software programs
  • Ability to create and/or edit written reports
  • Ability to sell or influence others

When students understand what they need to know and how to acquire the necessary skills for success, they will be much more likely to understand the rationale for thinking about careers early in their time at college.

An online employer survey released in April, 2013 by Hart Research Associates for The Association of American Colleges and Universities, echoes a number of the same findings in the surveys described above. Ninety-three percent of the surveyed employers, for example, agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major”.

Colleges must find ways to help students apply learning in real world settings

Employers in all three surveys see room for improvement in the way students are prepared for the workforce. Their most important message is that colleges and universities need to find ways to help students apply their learning in real-world settings. No longer can internships and other experiential learning simply be delegated to a junior professional in the careers office with few resources.

Career preparation of college students is often seen as predominantly the responsibility of the career services offices. Certainly, these offices should be held accountable for enabling students to make good decisions about career choices and develop job search skills. But what the Chronicle, AAC&U and NACE surveys highlight is that success in finding work requires the development of knowledge and skills over the entire time a student is in college, not simply in the last two or three years. Job search savvy only makes a difference when students can demonstrate how their educational background and experience meet an employer’s needs.

Preparing students for the world of work is an institutional responsibility, requiring a coordinated strategy. Career services offices, senior administrators, faculty, advisors, and employers must all play a role in charting a clearer path to graduate success.

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