Trying to Figure Out What Employers Want in College Graduates - Jeff Selingo


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Trying to Figure Out What Employers Want in College Graduates

What do employers want in college graduates? One view is that they want balance.

In this continuing debate over the main purpose of a college degree (training vs. broad education), I read a very thoughtful interview with the former president and CEO of IBM in the latest issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine.

You can find the complete interview with Sam Palmisano here, but two of his ideas caught my attention.

First, unlike other business leaders and politicians he didn’t advocate specifically for the liberal arts, the sciences, or business. He said today’s students need all of them.

You need some deep skill in today’s global world. It can be engineering, it can be arts, it can be theater, it can be math. It can be finance, just something you’re deep in. But whatever you’re deep in, you need to balance with the other side of it. So if you’re deep in math and science or engineering, you’ve got to balance it with the humanities because you have to work in these multicultural global environments in the broadest sense of diversity. All religions. All cultures. All languages. But if you’re not deep and smart in some discipline, you’re going to have a hard time competing.

Second, he questioned the focus in admissions on creating diverse classes, rather than diverse individuals.

One of the issues that I have with some of the processes around college admissions is the fact that they want to get a diverse class with a lot of students who are different. And we want a diverse individual. As an employer I’m looking for a diverse individual, not a narrow individual in a diverse environment.

What employers want seems to be a question on the minds of many prospective college students and their families as they consider the value of a college degree. As a result, it’s also a question many college leaders are asking.

In thinking about the link between colleges and labor market recently with several colleagues, here were the questions I asked:

Have employers ever been happy with college graduates? Employers complain about the quality of today’s graduates, but are their expectations just different than in the past?

What defines success in a career? We tend to define it as a bottom-line number (the salary), but are there other ways to measure success to show to prospective students and their parents?

Has software made hiring too automated? Is what HR wants in an employee (i.e. specific skills easily searched by software) really desired by other key people in the company, such as CEOs and day-to-day supervisors?

The role of the degree vs. short-term certificates? For-profits and community colleges have added to their enrollments in the past decade by adding short-term certificate programs. Do such programs just provide a short-term boost to graduates?

Is there a skills gap? Millions of jobs go unfilled each year, supposedly because the workers don’t exist. Reality or myth?

Subject matter expertise vs. reasoning/critical thinking? Many in academe think that employers once provided on-the-job training to college graduates who were broadly educated. Now, employers want colleges to do the job for them by teaching specific skills.

Are there things that every college graduate should know? If so, how would you measure that they actually learned it?

Why do big corporate recruiters only focus on a select group of campuses? And what do colleges not on those lists tell their prospective students?

Have thoughts or answers to any of those questions? Or feel free to add some of your own.