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A College Degree Sorts Job Applicants, but Employers Wish It Meant More

12/30/2013

The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 12, 2013.

Employers value a four-year college degree, many of them more than ever.

Yet half of those surveyed recently by The Chronicle and American Public Media's Marketplace said they had trouble finding recent graduates qualified to fill positions at their company or organization. Nearly a third gave colleges just fair to poor marks for producing successful employees. And they dinged bachelor's-degree holders for lacking basic workplace proficiencies, like adaptability, communication skills, and the ability to solve complex problems.

"Woefully unprepared" is how David E. Boyes characterized the newly minted B.A.'s who apply to his Northern Virginia technology consulting company.

What gives? These days a bachelor's degree is practically a prerequisite for getting your résumé read—two-thirds of employers said they never waive degree requirements, or do so only for particularly outstanding candidates. But clearly the credential leaves employers wanting. While they use college as a sorting mechanism, to signal job candidates' discipline and drive, they think it is falling short in adequately preparing new hires.

The tension may lie partly in changes in the world of work: technological transformation and evolving expectations that employees be ready to handle everything straightaway. And perhaps managers are right to expect an easier time finding employees up to the task—after all, three times the proportion of Americans have bachelor's degrees now as did a generation or two ago.

Some economists, like Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that employers' gripes about unprepared job candidates are just the same old, same old: "I understand that those doing the hiring in ancient Greece complained about the same thing."

Sine Nomine Associates, Mr. Boyes's firm, works with high-tech companies like Cisco and IBM. However, it's fundamental abilities that he says recent graduates lack, like how to analyze large amounts of data or construct a cogent argument. "It's not a matter of technical skill," he says, "but of knowing how to think."

Mr. Boyes, who takes on one or two new employees a year, isn't alone in finding recent graduates weak in those areas. While fresh hires had the right technical know-how for the job, said most employers in the survey, they grumbled that colleges weren't adequately preparing students in written and oral communication, decision-making, and analytical and research skills.

That might come as a surprise to college leaders, who frequently cast the value of a degree in those very terms. But Julian L. Alssid, of the nonprofit Workforce Strategy Center, says that although business and higher education may use the same language, it doesn't always have the same meaning. Educators often think of such competencies "in a purely academic context," Mr. Alssid says, while employers want "book smarts to translate to the real world."

"It's a matter of how to apply that knowledge," he says.

Such a push, however, tends not to go over well with faculty members who look down on any instruction perceived as vocational.

The Boeing Company in 2008 began to rank colleges based on how well their graduates perform within the corporation; it plans to conduct the same evaluation again this year, says Richard D. Stephens, senior vice president for human resources and management.

While the results have not been made public, Boeing did share them with colleges. Some took the findings seriously, even working with the aerospace company to refine their curricula, while others dismissed them. Colleges' responses, Mr. Stephens says, have affected where Boeing focuses its internship programs and hiring.

"To expect business to bring graduates up to speed," he says, "that's too much to ask."

With many people now moving from job to job and employer to employer throughout their careers, on-the-job preparation no longer makes economic sense to a lot of companies. Mr. Boyes, the technology consultant, puts all new hires through a yearlong training program, but he's an outlier.

"Once upon a time, 'trainee' used to be a common job title," says Philip D. Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "Now companies expect everyone, recent graduates included, to be ready to go on Day One.

"The mantle of preparing the work force," he says, "has been passed to higher ed."

Whether colleges want to accept that responsibility is another matter. While some institutions tout their career centers, internship offerings, and academic programs designed with industry input, others argue that workplace skills ought to be taught on the job. Higher education is meant to educate broadly, not train narrowly, they say: It's business that's asking too much.

And if college graduates aren't up to scratch, some campus leaders ask, why do employers keep hiring them? The unemployment rate for Americans with bachelor's degrees, after all, is less than 5 percent; for those with only high-school diplomas, it's nearly double.

Well, because even though employers may kvetch about college graduates, they generally make better employees than those who finished only high school, says Paul E. Harrington, who leads Drexel University's Center for Labor Markets and Policy. If nothing else, having gone through four—or five or six—years of schooling proves that they can stick with a task. "It's a relative bet," he says.

Survey respondents echoed that idea, calling a college degree "absolutely required," "a must," and "indication a candidate ... can work toward achieving a goal." A B.A. shows that somebody has "staying power," one employer said. "It helps distinguish between those that have put in effort," another noted, "versus those who have not."

But Mr. Harrington and others worry that bachelor's-degree holders may be squeezing those with less education out of the job market, particularly during this lingering downturn. A recent study by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a research-and-advocacy group, found that nearly half of all American college graduates in 2010 were underemployed, holding jobs that require less than a bachelor's degree.

Those findings are contested by some in higher education, such as the Lumina Foundation's Jamie P. Merisotis, who calls the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics' occupational definitions, on which the study is based, imprecise or out of date. A college degree may not be necessary to sell shoes, but it probably is to sell sophisticated medical devices, Mr. Merisotis says. Both occupations are classified as "sales" by the bureau.

In fact, in the Chronicle-Marketplace survey, some lines of work that traditionally haven't required a degree, including manufacturing and the service-and-retail sector, are where employers now place a higher value on a college education. Other fields, like nursing and respiratory therapy, have begun to require a bachelor's degree for even entry-level positions.

The trend may reflect the growing complexity of certain professions, but it worries Barbara R. Jones, president of South Arkansas Community College, a rural institution that enrolls large numbers of working adults and first-generation students.

Additional schooling isn't always feasible or affordable for them, she says, and all the focus on the bachelor's degree could make it more difficult for those students to climb toward a solid career.

"My concern," she says, "is that we don't eliminate rungs on the ladder."

Survey Results and Methodology

The findings on these pages come from a survey developed, fielded, and analyzed by Maguire Associates Inc., a higher-education consulting firm, on behalf of The Chronicle and American Public Media's Marketplace. Maguire invited 50,000 employers to participate in the study. Experience.com, a career-services consultancy, helped develop the sample by providing a contact list of employers that recruit recent college graduates.

The survey was conducted in August and September 2012. There were 704 responses.

The Chronicle of Higher Education.  March 12, 2013.

Results were organized by industry and hiring level. Hiring levels were divided into human resources, managers, and executives.

Update (March 12, 2 p.m.): For additional information, please see data from Maguire Associates Inc.: