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Why Recent College Graduates Can’t Find Jobs

What students think employers want isn't what employers want.

In August 2013, Harris Interactive conducted an online survey of 1,000 hiring managers and 2,000 college students aimed at answering the question: Why do recent college graduates have difficulty finding jobs?

We all know part of the answer: A slow recovery from the global economic downturn of 2008. But while students complain about the difficulty in finding jobs, employers equally complain about finding qualified applicants. And a significant part of that is because what students believe employers want and what employers actually want turn out to be two very different things.

Some highlights of the report:

1. Almost half of the students surveyed believe a degree from a prestigious school is very or extremely important to employers. But only 28% of hiring managers indicated that this mattered in their hiring decisions.

2. About three-quarters (77%) of surveyed college students believed professional or personal connections were important for securing a job. But only 52% of hiring managers thought so.

So what mattered to hiring managers?

Three things made a job applicant attractive as a prospective employee:

1. 93% wanted evidence that the prospective employee can lead.

2. 91% thought it important that prospective employees participated in extracurricular activities related to their field of study.

3. 82% wanted to see a completed a formal internship before the applicant graduated from college.

Why do these things matter? Because they are evidence of what are termed “soft skills”, that is, evidence that a prospective employee is able to navigate the demands of the workplace effectively.

A dearth of “soft skills”

There was general agreement among hiring managers and students that students emerge from college with sufficient “hard skills” to do the job. But when queried about competence in all-important “soft skills”, an enormous gap emerged between how capable students thought they were and how prospective employers saw them.

To assess these skills, the survey included five questions. The percentage of students who thought they were very or completely prepared to use the described skills was, in every case, much higher than managers’ assessment of graduating students’ preparation to use those skills in the workplace:

1. Make a persuasive argument to convince others to adopt an idea? Students: 62%, Managers: 43%

2. Write to encourage action or make a specific request? Students: 64%, Managers: 43%

3. Communicate with authority figures and clients? Students: 70%, Managers: 44%

4. Collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds? Students: 79%, Managers: 62%

5. Complete a project as part of a team? Students: 78%, Managers: 63%

When it came to handling budgets, things were even more bleak: Fifty-two percent of students felt completely or very prepared to use their budgeting abilities, while only 30% of hiring managers were convinced they could.

The take home message from this research is clear: In order to be prepared for the workplace, students need spend more time “walking the walk” and less time “talking the talk” in sterile classrooms. The lecture and exam format that dominates academia may be the gold standard for knowledge acquisition, but it renders students ill prepared to make use of that knowledge in a dynamic workplace.

The survey was conducted on behalf of Chegg, Inc., an academic company based in Santa Clara, CA, that specializes in online textbook rentals, homework help, and scholarships. For more survey results, see the press release summarized in this Inside Higher Education article.

 Copyright Denise Cummins November 11, 2013

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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