Why are so many college students failing to gain job skills before graduation?

Published 4:30 pm Monday, February 16, 2015

If you watch college sports on television, you’ve probably seen the ad for Enterprise Rent-A-Car featuring former college athletes working behind the counter at your nearby Enterprise location. Enterprise — which hires more entry-level college graduates annually than any other company in the U.S. — likes recruiting college athletes because they know how to work on teams and multitask.

“We see a lot of transferable skills in athletes,” said Marie Artim, vice president of talent acquisition at Enterprise.

Even so, Enterprise, like many employers, still finds today’s college graduates severely lacking in some basic skills, particularly problem solving, decision making, and the ability to prioritize tasks.

“This is a generation that has been ‘syllabused’ through their lives,” Artim said, referring to the outline of a class students receive at the beginning of a college course. “Decisions were made for them, so we’re less likely to find someone who can pull the trigger and make a decision.”

Bosses, of course, have long complained that newly minted college grads are not ready for the world of work, but there is a growing body of evidence that what students learn — or more likely don’t learn — in college makes them ill-prepared for the global job market. Two studies in just the past few weeks show that the clear signal a college degree once sent to employers that someone is ready for a job increasingly has a lot of noise surrounding it.

One study is the result of a test administered to 32,000 students at 169 colleges and universities. It found that 40 percent of college seniors fail to graduate with the complex reasoning skills needed in today’s workplace. The test, the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, is given to freshmen and seniors and measures the gains made during college in critical thinking, writing and communication, and analytical reasoning.

The results of the test found little difference between those students who graduated from public colleges and those who went to private schools. Not surprisingly, students who graduated from the best colleges did better than everyone else on the test as seniors, but their gains since taking the test as freshmen were actually smaller than those students who graduated from less elite schools.

The big difference between the skills of graduates depended on their college major: Students who studied math and science scored significantly higher than those who studied in the so-called helping and service fields, such as social work, and in business, which is the most popular college major.

A second study released this month found a similar disconnect between what employers need and the readiness of college seniors. In a pair of surveys by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, would-be graduates said college armed them with the skills needed for the job market. But employers disagreed. On a range of nearly 20 skills, employers consistently rated students much lower than they judged themselves. While 57 percent of students said they were creative and innovative, for example, just 25 percent of employers agreed.

If you’re a parent of a high-school senior or prospective college student, these findings might make you wonder if there is any hope for a good job after college graduation. There is, but whether a student launches after college depends largely on what they do while in school. Just getting the sheepskin no longer guarantees a good job.

Employers tell me that students who dedicate time and effort to their major or an outside-the-classroom activity, secure multiple internships during their four years, and take on leadership roles are more likely to possess the skills needed for the workforce than students who drift through college. The best skill that students can learn in college is actually the ability to learn.

“People know how to take a course. But they need to learn how to learn,” said John Leutner, head of global learning at Xerox. The reason he said so many workers take time management courses is that while they were in college someone else set their priorities for them. “College graduates now,” he told me, “move into a contextual job, not a task-based job.”

The best preparation for today’s job market is a mix of classroom learning that can be applied in real-world experiences, or a combination of academic experience and practical experience. “Our best employees are problem solvers and are able to weave everything they know together,” said Artim, of Enterprise. “They can think on their feet.”

What these recent studies show is that too many students are focused on the wrong things in college. Too many of them are worried, for example, about picking the right college major for the job market, when it really doesn’t matter what they major in as long as they are rigorous in their studies as well as activities beyond the classroom.

There is also too much emphasis these days on picking a practical field of study, which is why business is the most popular undergraduate major. But employers need people who are broadly educated and have practical skills. Too many colleges are failing to provide that guidance and those opportunities to students while saddling them with debt they won’t be able pay off in the unemployment line.

One of the country’s most-sought-after employers, Google, has found that it is increasingly hiring people without college degrees because the signal of the credential is no longer as clear as it used to be that someone is job ready. If colleges don’t provide the mix of academic and practical experiences that students need and students fail to take advantage of them, pretty soon we’ll see other employers looking for alternatives to the college degree as well.