Meeting employers’ expectations in higher ed

Programming prioritizes soft skills students need to flourish in workplace

The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently delivered a wake-up call to both students and administrators about how well prepared college graduates are for the world of work.

The survey, which was completed by both college students and employers with more than 25 employees, showed students consistently rated themselves as “well prepared” when employers thought otherwise.

As with most survey data, the gap analysis tells the story. In most every category, students rated themselves at least 25 percentage points higher than employers. For example, 66 percent of students said they were well prepared critical thinkers, but only 26 percent of employers agreed.

Nearly two-thirds of students said they were well prepared to write effectively, while only 27 percent of hiring managers said students were ready. There was a 34 percentage-point difference in being able to communicate verbally, with 62 percent of students saying they were ready versus 28 percent of employers.

Students thought of themselves as more creative, well prepared to work in teams and more aware of diverse cultures. Less than four in 10 employers thought students were ready for teamwork and only a quarter said graduates were ready to contribute to the creative process. Not even two in 10 employers thought today’s graduates were more aware of diverse cultures.

Broad spectrum

What this tells me is that colleges and universities need to be more overt in their programming to ensure students have the experiences required to be successful employees. Many colleges believe that students will pick up the “soft skills” through osmosis. But the AACU data suggests that it isn’t working.

At Otterbein University, we’ve tried to be much more intentional about the experiences we expect students to have, both inside and outside of the classroom. Woven throughout our academic program are our First Year Seminar courses that expose students to a variety of disciplines and are complemented by First Year Experience programs which cover a broad spectrum of events that address issues of transition.

Additionally, our Integrative Studies general education package brings together students from a variety of majors, as does our Senior Year Experience course lineup.

Five cards

Outside of the classroom, we place a strong emphasis on experiential learning as evidenced by our “Five Cardinal Experiences,” or “Five Cards.” These experiences encourage students to earn cards that round out their academic journey.

While these are rooted in academic components, the Five Cardinal Experiences help students make meaning of the concepts they are learning in the classroom. The Five Cards are:

  • Internships/professional experiences
  • Undergraduate research
  • Global/intercultural engagement  
  • Leadership/citizenship
  • Community engagement

For example, the undergraduate research card ensures that students collaborate with faculty members on producing original research. This experience requires professional written and oral communication, critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities, all areas where the AACU said college students fell short of employer expectations.

Test drive

While all the cards help students develop these skills, internships serve as a pivotal opportunity for students to test-drive career paths and further enhance their professional skill set. As career services professionals, we must inform students and colleagues about the kinds of skills employers are seeking.

While colleges and universities should still see their institutions as helping to shape the minds of tomorrow, we must not forget that employers are also looking to us to ensure students have the soft skills required for the workplace.

The more opportunities we can provide students to develop their professional skill set, the more prepared they will be to enter the workforce and succeed.

Ryan Brechbill is the director of the Center for Career & Professional Development at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.


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