Aligning Employer Needs with Student Learning in College

In President Obama’s recent speech at Knox College, he called the “undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up” in colleges and universities unsustainable, and said he would lay out an aggressive strategy to shake up higher education. A better approach would be for higher education to take the lead and accelerate the pace at which it re-invents itself, while making more effective use of institutional funds.

Re-thinking College to Career

A key place for higher education to start is in re-thinking how students can be better prepared to find work. Most colleges would agree that the perception of job success after graduation from a particular institution is a key driver of matriculation, and that more successful graduates eventually lead to greater philanthropy. But too much of the attention paid to the goal of career preparation is simply lip service, with the blame going to Career Services offices when results are poor. Career Services certainly need to be part of the re-invention process, and take a much more data-driven approach to their work. But they can’t solve their students’ career problems without broad institutional support on the front end.

What Employers Want

All the career assistance in the world is not going to help the student who isn’t qualified. Yet how many of our institutions have any sense of what employers are expecting of students and graduates when they hire them for internships and full time work? According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Job Outlook 2013 Spring Update, employers rank the most desired skills and characteristics as follows:

#1 Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
#2 Ability to make decisions and solve problems
#3 Ability to obtain and process information
#4 Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work
#5 Ability to analyze quantitative data
#6 Technical knowledge related to the job
#7 Proficiency with computer software programs
#8 Ability to create and/or edit written reports
#9 Ability to sell or influence others

Mapping how students can acquire the necessary skills

During the time a student is in college, he or she typically has four ways through which to develop the skills required by employers: The classroom; co-curricular or extracurricular activities; internships or other experiential education; and, the Career Center. The easiest way to become competent in any of these areas is through internships. But that doesn’t mean we can’t significantly boost many the student’s skill sets and desired characteristics while they are on campus.The following chart illustrates the opportunities:

2013 Skills Employers Seek NACE, AACU

The graduate skills deficit

As the above chart indicates, there are multiple ways during the time students are in college to help them acquire practical skills. But cross referencing the NACE employer data with data from the Hart Research Associates’ survey of employers conducted for the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) illustrates that there is much work still to be done. Of the nine top skill sets identified as important in the NACE survey, six were highlighted in the AACU survey as areas to which higher education should pay more attention.The three top areas in which employers found students deficient were:
1) verbal communications
2) written communications
3) problem solving and decision making

What can colleges and universities do?

What stands out from a review of employer needs and college graduate deficits is that a new way of preparation from college to career is required. If we want students to acquire the skills sought by employers, we must be clear how, where and why they need to develop them. We can’t just say “go to the Career Center and go there early”. The fact is, skills required by employers take time to develop. Staff in the Career Center don’t have that time, or even, perhaps, the expertise. They are better positioned to concentrate on teaching students the job search strategies and skills they need to be successful in their applications for employment.

One argument against building skill development into classes is that it will somehow diminish the quality of the education. But, integrating such skills into a course is totally consistent with a highly rigorous education–even a liberal arts education. There are plenty of ways, for example, that opportunities to do oral presentations can be built into humanities classes, or white papers required in classes on pressing social issues. Even statistics classes can require students to develop problem solving skills using real world examples, like analyzing baseball scores.

The key is to help students understand what they need to learn, advise them how to learn it, and help them reflect on how to practice and enhance skills in and out of the classroom. There are roles for faculty, administrators, alumni, coaches and career professionals to play. When the entire institution is involved in preparing students for post-graduation success in a very targeted way, we have a much greater chance of making that success happen.


  1. Hi Sheila, Thoughtful approach from you, as always. I have a comment about this:

    “The key is to help students understand what they need to learn…”

    I read that this way in the context of this debate about “what students need to learn”:

    “The key is to help students understand what they need to learn [in order to get a job right after college]…”

    As an alumni director, I’m all for full employment and alumni success. But what’s missing from this approach, and from so much of the debate, is a critical assessment of exactly when “what employers want” is the same as what students need. Most conversations about the “value of a college education” start and stop with “preparation for the workforce.”

    Many (most?) people who enroll in post-secondary study do so explicitly as career preparation. In the STEM fields, and in business curricula, this is a key driver of enrollment. But thousands upon thousands of students choose humanities and liberal arts subjects as majors, and it’s not because of the glut of high paying musicology jobs out there.

    It’s critical to address employment trends, educational outcomes, and the suitability of our population to the workforce. But it’s equally importnat in the long run to embrace the value of educational results other than those overtly related to career outcomes. An occasional reminder to ourselves about this will keep us from moving too far down the spectrum toward tying “educational effectiveness” primarily to income level or job title.

    Thanks for keeping us thinking about these things, Sheila!

  2. Michael Householder says:

    I think you define the problem very well, Sheila. Whether we in the education game like it or not, students (and parents) increasingly understand the value of higher education in economic terms. Many of us who teach courses and think about curricula recognize that we must rethink our pedagogy and teaching methodologies. But it’s one thing to acknowledge that “There are plenty of ways [to] integrate…skills [employers want] into a course” and quite another to make it happen in a thoughtful way. In my own field of English, for example, those who want to make writing skills more workplace-ready often simply want students to know how to format a memo or resume. So, while the challenge before us is increasingly clear, the real work of changing the everyday practice of teaching still lies ahead of us.

  3. Jerry Houser says:

    Hi Sheila.
    As usual, your articles provoke good thinking. And Andy Shaindlin is always engaging (I worked with him for several years at Caltech).
    When I read the NACE list of 9 skills you mention above, as well as other similar employer “skills wish lists,” many of those skills are indeed developed by a good liberal arts curriculum. Research indicates that a liberal arts college degree pays off 5 – 10 years later. The problem is that 50% of our graduates can’t find a good first job out of college (based on NACE and other surveys) because the liberal arts skills don’t prepare them for that. Bosses want applicants who can hit the ground running. Managers want immediate employable skills.
    One solution is to create specific learning outcomes for those entry-level competencies and skills employers want and create certificates, badges, co-curricular transcripts, or ePortfolios that students can complete during their undergrad years through jobs, internships, leadership and coursework. Then embed the certificate completion in university systems such as student affairs, leadership, work-study jobs, internships for credit, alumni services, etc. Students could continue working through learning activities and earn badges of completion. The Red Cross can give you a first aid certificate, why can’t a college give you a first job certificate? For instance, before I got an MBA, I completed an Engineering Management Certificate (Caltech’s Industrial Relations Center – MBA like) that included VERY practical and applicable 1 or 2 day courses such as project management, supervision, marketing, negotiation, customer service, etc. I continue to use the resources and skills from those classes even to this day. Why not do this for undergrads?

    Actually, many schools, including Willamette University, are working on this idea. And the recent entry of good online learning options and MOOCs makes it a possibility like never before. The greatest barriers to driving those kinds of certificate programs are:
    1. developing the program,
    2. funding/administration,
    3. getting buy-in from the institution (faculty, supervisors, administrators, etc.),
    4. getting participation from students themselves (they often don’t “get it” until after graduation).

    The need is obvious, and we should fill it. We need to develop some concrete models and systems to address this gaping and important need. Organizations like LeaderShape have a great program, but we need something for every undergraduate. I have something brewing, but it’s not soup just yet. More to come…



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