Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What Employers Want from College Grads

From American Public Media's Marketplace:

What do employers really want from college grads?

You hear it all the time. A college degree is pretty much a must these days in the workforce. But employers often complain that today’s college graduates aren’t cutting it. . . .
“We find that a lot of people, and not just new college grads, people that are coming from a career, aren’t getting that skill set,” Boyes  [a high-tech employer] says. “How you put an idea forward, and how do you support it, how do you build it, how do you put the facts behind it? All of those things are really critical."
Boyes sounds like a lot of the employers who responded to our survey. More than half of them said they have trouble finding qualified people for job openings. They said recent grads too often don’t know how to communicate effectively. And they have trouble adapting, problem solving and making decisions – things employers say they should have learned in college. . . .
That’s why everyone Boyes hires goes through a year-long training program. “The company puts probably about a quarter of a million dollars into every single new hire,” Boyes says. “But that’s the kind of value that we get out of it.”
The training covers basics – like how to write an effective business document – and throws in some philosophy and history. . . .We do that because we ask them to look at the process – the abstract process – of organizing ideas,” Boyes says.
Sounds a lot like an argument for liberal arts education, at a time when more students are being told to study science and technology as a path to a career. Maguire Associates, the firm that conducted the survey, says the findings suggest colleges should break down the “false dichotomy of liberal arts and career development,” saying they’re “intrinsically linked.”
Or, as Boyes puts it: “We don’t need mono-focused people. We need well-rounded people.” And that’s from a tech employer. 

Fully story here.

One could argue that the reporter stacked the deck more than a bit, by choosing to shape a story about a larger survey around an anecdote about a single high-tech employer with a very specific vision for its employees (and a liberal-arts sensibility; see clever Latin name of said business), and the money to put it into practice.  But both the story and the underlying survey still sound interesting, and seem to confirm what I often tell my students: people hire college graduates not for what they already know, but for the skills they have developed, especially the ones that will allow them to follow, and shape, changes in accepted knowledge in an increasingly fast-moving world (or at least one that seems that way; it's worth noting that the pace of contemporary change seemed dizzying and disorienting to Thoreau and other denizens of the 19th century, as well).

Another thing that stood out for me (in a part of the story I haven't excerpted above): the guinea pig job applicant they sent in to interview did less than satisfactorily on one interview question because he was describing a project structured by exactly the sort of carefully-scaffolded assignment many of us try to create.  Because the assignment had so many detailed steps, directions, guidelines, etc. (good ones, no doubt), it sounds like he and his team hadn't learned as much about the process as they might, and hadn't had the chance to fail (and to overcome failure).  Now, I'm all for scaffolding (and not at all sure I'm ready to cope with the chaos that might/would result if I simply threw a task at students -- especially in groups -- and left them to figure out the process), but this does point to a weakness in even our best -- and I really do think they are, in many ways, good -- pedagogical practices.

P.S. Here's the Chronicle's take on the same story.  Apparently the survey was a joint effort.


  1. Since I received my B. Sc. in the late 1970s, I've had several employers. Most either wanted compliant sheep or cheap labour, preferrably both. That hasn't changed much since then, though, nowadays, few firms are willing to train anyone. When I started, they did.

    On the other hand, I was once interviewed by a college for a university transfer position. I was told that a major corporation in my area of the country told that institution that if its graduates were taught certain specific courses (all of which were related to its business), it would be willing to hire them. So much for not finding qualified candidates.

    The difficulties the applicant had with the interview because he paid close attention to details reminded me of the oil company I worked for as a brand-new graduate.

    I was once scolded for being so concerned about details when back-of-the-envelope solutions were "good enough". I was taken aback because I was a rookie at that time and needed to gain confidence in my abilities. I could only do that by first knowing all the details and then, though experience, learning what was important. Also, while I was an undergrad, I learned that paying close attention to details was necessary in order to do my job. Things not only had to work properly but they had to be safe and, where possible, economical.

    It wasn't until after I left the company that certain things started making sense to me. Apparently the only reason anyone with an engineering degree worked for that company was to become a manager. (I, by the way, had no such ambitions.) In order to be one, a person had to be seen to be as decisive, confident, and capable of quickly accomplishing things. Being concerned about details and methods was a sign of weakness and indecision and, since time was money, costly.

    Unfortunately, that policy often led to rash and reckless decisions which frequently had unfortunate consequences.

    1. That company wouldn't have been British Petroleum, would it?

    2. No, but it was related to one in the same league.

      More on what employers are looking for:

  2. It frustrates me no end that people think there's an exclusive dichotomy between STEM and the liberal arts. News flash: the STEM fields are part of a proper liberal-arts education, and failure to be able to think through a quantitative problem is every bit as limiting, and pitiable, as the failure to be able to read and interpret prose or poetry.

    It's shameful how far we've fallen from the ideal of a well-rounded intellect. Just 125 years ago, T.H. Huxley was warning the new "scientific college" (later Manchester University) that it's just as wrong to know nothing but science and engineering as it is to know none at all.

    1. I'm feeling especially frustrated by the exams I just graded, from a course that's no more difficult -- though somewhat more conceptual -- than a standard, non-AP high school chemistry course.

      I'm not going to tell them that if they can't handle this course, they don't belong in college. But I'm going to think it.

  3. “The company puts probably about a quarter of a million dollars into every single new hire,” Boyes says. “But that’s the kind of value that we get out of it.”


    So lemme see if I got this straight. It's worth it to a company to sink 250 large into training a single employee for one job. But those same companies complain if universities don't prepare graduates to be ready for any job they might wind up in, while keeping tuition and student debt as low as possible, and with shrinking public support from legislatures that won't give us the steam off their pee without extracting concessions and railing to the high heavens about tenured layabouts.

    Have I got that right, Mr. Boyes?

    1. That doesn't sound right. At most of the companies I worked, it took me, maybe, 6 months at most to not only figure out the place, including its culture and procedures, but also how to do my job properly. That would mean about half a year's salary would have to be spent before I could be useful. Nowadays, for someone with my background and experience, that would be $50,000 tops.

      By quoting such a high number, he might be trying to justify looking for people who'll be satisfied working for minimum wage.

  4. Engineers are often educated too narrowly. This is nothing new: just look at how quickly their skills become obsolete. Engineers have therefore long been advised to take management courses too.

    Physics is much more general, and pushes problem solving. I used to say that physics is the liberal-arts major for the technological age. I stopped saying this when too many people chucked tomatoes.

    When employers complain that graduates can't communicate effectively, I think it's because recent graduates think that barely decipherable "text-ese" is OK for business e-mail. It isn't: employers expect that business e-mail look like business letters, and I can't say I blame them.

    I think that the real problem here is that about half the graduating seniors at my university can't write as well as I could in 9th grade. I do my best in my general-ed astronomy course for non-majors to get them to write better, read and follow directions carefully, and demonstrate proficiency in mathematics as well as I could in 6th grade. I don't tolerate texting in class, don't accept late work, and frown on being late or childish in general. They kick and scream every step of the way.

    1. When I was an engineering undergrad during the 1970s, what I learned would have allowed me to take any number of technical jobs.

      I suspect that has changed over the years, possibly because by giving students a narrower education, academic institutions can extract more money from people. They may have to come back for extra courses as they need them.

      Don't forget that the emphasis isn't so much on education but credentials. To an employer, having that magic piece of paper is accepted as proficiency.

    2. I think the problem is not a conspiracy by universities to get money from students later, but a PR campaign by universities to attract high-school students who are absolutely certain they want to be just like Nick Stokes and Sara Sidle on CSI, and refuse to consider the fact that a proper chemistry/biochemistry major will qualify them to work in *any* lab. So the students get slotted into overly-specialized majors that were intended to be recruiting tools, and graduate qualified to do nothing outside that one subdivisional sliver of nothing.

    3. Sadly, I think another part of the picture is employers taking the easiest path to demonstrating that they're not discriminating among applicants on unacceptable bases (race, gender, age, etc.). One easy way to accomplish that is to require a degree (or certificate) that is very obviously closely tied to the job being advertised (even if it's not actually the sort of job for which classroom study is a particularly good qualification). I certainly don't want to return to a world where white males are perceived as being able to "pick up" just about anything given a bit of time, while others (women, people of color) are seen as only suited to more limited jobs (well, to the extent that we've ever left that world, but having a J.D., as well as passing the bar, did provide some basic credibility for Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a host of other, less-well-known female lawyers who didn't want to be legal secretaries). As a reasonably smart person with a number of transferable skills who is nearing the half-century mark, I'd also point out that insisting on up-to-date "credentials" that can be gained only by paying tuition also can serve as a form of age discrimination.

      Somewhere, there's a happy medium.


      On my way to a dental clinic the other day, I chatted with a university student who was studying chemical engineering. When I asked her why she decided to go into that discipline, she didn't have a convincing answer and, quite obviously, had no idea of what actual engineering was about. Much of it is simple grunt work where one has to do things like mundane calculations over and over again or checking drawings that someone else had prepared.

      I don't just blame universities for that. Much of the fault lies with the profession itself and the members it uses for recruiting purposes. I remember sitting through a number of undergrad seminars which were presented by practicing engineers. Not one of them said anything about the more unpleasant aspects. At the oil company I worked for, I had to do things like crawl through process vessels to take corrosion measurements. I, along with many of my fellow undergrads, knew that much of what was said in those seminars was malarkey.

      I also blame high schools. It wouldn't surprise me if many high school counsellors convince students to go into certain disciplines without consulting anyone who actually works in those fields. The kids might be told stuff like "if you try hard enough, you will succeed" without considering that one needs some actual aptitude and self-discipline.

    5. CC:

      Companies nowadays are shameless in discriminating against older applicants. Often the excuses they use to justify it are quite lame. Ultimately, those companies want cheap labour and workers who are more compliant.

  5. How funny: “How you put an idea forward, and how do you support it, how do you build it, how do you put the facts behind it? All of those things are really critical." That is exactly what I have tried for years to get my students to do: to master knowledge of a discipline, and then marshal it to develop and make an argument. If you expect students to do that on exams, you take your life into your hands as 70% of your class comes to you to complain about not getting essay questions ahead of time, or to plead that they've never written an essay on an exam and don't know how to do it, etc. etc. So guess what, tired of all that kickback, I've stopped.