Employers Say New College Grads Can’t Think

One of our very human tendencies is that we are not very good at seeing ourselves through others’ eyes. Studies show most college students claim to have the skills and qualities employers are looking for today. Responding to the same surveys, employers say students aren’t only wrong, but really wrong. The big difference between the two groups judging the very same things in such wildly different ways? Employers are basing their evaluations on real-world experiences while students are just fantasizing.

What are employers looking for in new hires?

Over and over again employers have seen how rookies fail to measure up to workplace expectations. Just like when you and I hire someone, employers want the newly-graduated to arrive with what they consider to be essential skills and character traits. Today’s employers want new hires just out of college to be able to:

  • Think critically.
  • Analyze problems and situations.
  • Manage the information gathering process.
  • Solve complex problems.
  • Apply their knowledge to the real world.
  • Communicate effectively verbally and in writing.

Table 1 is arranged by the size of the gap in perceptions.

The percentage of employers saying new graduates have these skills and abilities is shown by the green bar, overlaid on the red bar, which indicates the percentage of graduates who claim to have these capabilities. A quick glance shows the percentage of employers who think grads have each of these seven skills is less than half that of students who think they do.

Brad Polombo’s article in The National Review, Why Aren’t College Students Learning Anything? adds another likely explanation when he tells us more than half of all college students admit to spending more classroom time texting and browsing than paying attention to the teacher (I can attest to this firsthand among half the students in my MBA classes).

Wow!

Two and sometimes three times as many students see themselves as skilled in every one of these seven key areas as employers do. Students’ ratings are all above 60% and employers’ ratings are all well below 30%, with two below 20%.

On average, about one employer in four (26%) sees new grads as having these seven critical skills while nearly two-thirds (63%) of students say they already do. That’s a huge disconnect between student perception and employer reality, isn’t it? Because we know satisfaction is best expressed as the gap between expectations and reality, we must conclude that employers are extremely unsatisfied with the skills of the students graduating from college these days.

The seven skills and abilities in Table 1 are essential for people who work with information.

In the modern workplace, almost everyone works with information. The biggest gap revealed by the survey is in critical thinking, defined as “open-minded, disciplined, evidence-based analysis.” Our analytical ability is how well we are able to conduct detailed examinations and interpret the results. “Finding, organizing, and evaluating information” sounds to me like conducting research, the purpose of which is to solve complex problems.

We also see that new grads arrive thinking they are skilled at communicating verbally and in writing when they’re not. Exactly what is the point of learning what we did at university if we can’t apply those things to real world situations in ways that help the business?

Table 2 shows five qualities and character traits important to employers.

Skills are important, but employers also want new graduates to have certain qualities and character traits. Employers want employees to:

  • Work with people from different backgrounds.
  • Work well with others in teams.
  • Be aware of diverse cultures.
  • Stay current on global developments.
  • Make ethical decisions.

Again, the items in this table are ranked by the magnitude of the gap between employers and new graduates. Three of these key characteristics involve getting along with people of different cultures and backgrounds. I would have thought college would be a great place to do these things, but employers say no.

Wow again!

Once again, students have highly inflated senses of self. More than twice as many students say they have these characteristics (52% to 23%) than employers do. Three of these important character traits are interrelated and involve working in teams with people from other cultures and backgrounds.

The lack of staying current on global developments tells us grads don’t think doing so is important, while employers know just how essential it is to have a global perspective in today’s global economy. The gap for ethical decision-making is unsettling.

The data we see in Tables 1 and 2 lead us to conclude this: the people employers need to collect, manage, and use information arrive in the workplace woefully unprepared to do so.

I’m an employer – how can I use this information?

How about doing a better job of separating the wheat from the chaff? Take a look at your job descriptions and employment ads. Are you emphasizing the right things? How many of these 12 factors are included? Perhaps your interview process needs overhauling. For example, if the ability to solve problems is what you’re looking for, how about presenting interviewees with two or three problems and listen as they go about solving them? If you want to hire people who can write well, how about giving candidates a five-minute, one-page writing assignment to determine their vocabulary, attention to detail, and ability to present complex issues simply? An added benefit of having them do these things as you watch is that you will see firsthand how they perform under pressure. And so on.

I’m an applicant – how can I use this information?

Don’t be one of the clueless. Begin by recognizing that your self-perceptions are very likely to be miles short of employers’ impressions. When you see that employers have learned talk is cheap, you can shine by producing real-life examples of things you do well. How about bringing along samples of your written work that show your ability to apply your knowledge and skills to real-world situations? You can also be prepared to answer questions about where your ideas came from so you’re not exposed as someone who steals others’ ideas, as was the case in this short, impostor-revealing scene from the movie Working Girl.

One of the things I enjoy doing – in as little as just a few days – is teaching people what I have learned about finding, evaluating, and organizing information.
UPDATE, May 19th:
A reader wrote asking if I thought this same survey was administered 20 years ago employers would have the same low estimates of new graduates’ skills and abilities. It’s a good question that others may also have, so I’m answering it via this open letter to readers.
My thoughts are that certainly some of the employer-student disconnect would be timeless or nearly so. But some isn’t all, and all the same numbers for all the same reasons would be unlikely.  Here are three reasons why. You can probably think of more.
> Our steady march towards becoming an increasingly globalized society makes cultural awareness, sensitivity, and acceptance much more important now than it was twenty years ago – in and out of the workplace.
> Our evolution into an information-based society has exploded over the last twenty years, meaning the need for critical thinkers who can find, organize, and evaluate information is at an all-time high. So are employers’ needs for people capable of conducting detailed examinations and providing evidence-based analysis. Newly-minted graduates tend to think looking up something on Wikipedia constitutes a detailed examination.
> Students in 2000 didn’t have smartphones. Modern-day students grew up with smartphones and spend half of their class time ignoring the teacher in favor of amusing themselves with their pocket entertainment devices. It is unlikely those who ignore teachers learn as much as those who don’t.
It’s a good question, and a tip of the hat to Alan G. for asking it.

Take a Closer Look, Volume 2, is free to Amazon Unlimited customers. The best way to protect yourself against the manipulations, distortions and fabrications that are more and more common these days is to learn how to see through them.