Do College Students Need More Exposure to the Workplace?
Nicole Dieker

As someone who has worked in higher education for many years, I’ve eyed the increasing demands by employers that colleges “prepare” students for employment with some sympathy, but also with frustration. The truth of the matter is:

  1. The number of students in college has skyrocketed in the past few decades specifically because employers have begun demanding that their employees have degrees. Employers have power over what qualifications young people have when they go to work. If employers make it clear that they value experience in ice cream parlors or camp counseling in employees, then students will enter these jobs in larger numbers during high school and/or college.
  2. Employers used to provide a lot more training to employees. At some point, employers decided that they shouldn’t have to provide training because training costs money. Far better for the cost to be pushed onto employees, governments, and colleges and for employees arrive to the workplace fully-formed. However, no employee arrives in a new job with exactly the right match of skills. And a college degree cannot provide a student with a complete mastery of anything, both hard skills and soft skills included. If an employer hires an employee who has never held a job, the employer should expect some degree of learning curve. No college program could teach a student all there is to know about workplace norms, even if all workplaces were the same. Speaking of which . . .
  3. Employers don’t want all of the same things. I can’t train students for employment except in the most general ways (don’t be late, try to work with others) because norms vary from field to field and company to company. Life at a tech startup with ping pong tables and a keg in the lunchroom is not the same as life at an established law firm or even life at a Fortune 500 company. Also, there are pressures that prevent professors from imposing too many consequences on students for failure to follow workplace norms like turning in work on time or to specifications. Administrators don’t want faculty to chase away “customers,” and students themselves can give their teachers bad evaluations that can lead to the teachers’ dismissal. Ironically, these issues are caused by the increased corporatization of the American university.
  4. Employers themselves can do something about these problems. They can improve their hiring processes so they hire employees with the skills they want. They can force new employees to attend seminars that teach conflict resolution in the workplace or proper behavior in meetings or proper workplace dress or anything else they might want employees to know. In fact, individual employers are often in a better position to offer this training than colleges for reasons 2 and 3 above.
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