What’s the problem with our college graduates?

soft-skills-training-make-elearning-work-enhancing-soft-skillsAccording to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), over 1.8M students earned bachelor’s degrees in 2014. This kind of stat gets me thinking…with over one million new entrants into the job market, that’s some pretty stiff competition. Of course, some may apply and go directly to graduate school and some may forge alternate paths, but largely most will want and need to begin careers. So I started thinking about what some have called the unemployability of recent graduates.

Aside from the competition and downturn in the job market over the last several years (not to minimize these issues, but simply meaning they fall outside the scope of this post), why has it been so hard for graduates to find positions that match their skill sets and interests? Is it because they can’t do math, don’t know science, or are afraid of technology – probably not. Ask them though to show up somewhere at a certain time, prepare a presentation on a topic that might require some research, or organize and articulate a set of solutions to a potential problem, and I have found that many (of course, not all, I don’t mean to generalize too broadly) lack the ‘soft’ skills – the term used to describe the kinds of skills needed for navigating a workplace effectively.

Maybe then we should stop calling them soft and consider them equal to if not part of the ‘hard’ or ‘true’ skills. They are some of the very things that will set candidates apart from one another or that can make a student a superstar in his/her first position. These skills are hard to teach and take time to develop, but that doesn’t mean they are not important. In fact, that probably means it is more important than ever to focus more diligently on effectively developing our students’ ‘soft’ skills  – as opposed to focusing only on preparing them to be content experts in certain subjects or fields.

The impetus is clear. Even employers’ calls for graduates’ organizational and interpersonal proficiency are becoming louder. A survey by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College found that more than 60% of employers said that applicants lack “communication and interpersonal skills” — a jump of about 10 percentage points in just two years. In another survey, a wide margin of managers also said today’s applicants can’t think critically and creatively, solve problems, or write well and cited such soft skills as communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration as the areas with the biggest gap.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers confirms such findings and found in its Job Outlook survey that the top five personal qualities/skills employers seek include:

  • Ability to work in a team
  • Verbal communication skills
  • Ability to make decisions and problem solve
  • Ability to obtain and process information
  • Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work

A lack of technical knowledge does not seem to be a main pain point. So what’s the result? Nearly 1 in 5 employers worldwide can’t fill positions because they can’t find people with the ‘soft’ skills.

So when someone talks about the unemployability of our graduates, I want to turn the focus inward and look to the opportunity we have as members of the higher education community. Let’s start helping our students seize the opportunities that are clearly out there for them. Doing so may require that we spend less time on content and more time on core competency development. To do so, we must systematize core competency and high impact assessment practices – that is, the systematic assessment of analytical, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative and information literacy, teamwork, and problem solving skills (just to name a few) through more active learning experiences in internships, service or community-based learning, writing or first year seminars, collaborative group projects, e-Portfolios, or capstone projects.

This work is hard. This work takes time. Yet, ultimately, we will be better equipping our students for the road that lies ahead. And, in my opinion, that is the kind of work worth doing.