Life After Graduation: The College-Workplace Readiness Gap

Why are college graduates having trouble finding employment?

Studies show that new college graduates face a 7.5 percent unemployment rate, compared to about 5 percent for experienced degree holders. Moreover, many of those who do find jobs remain at a disadvantage, as 49 percent of recent graduates report being underemployed.

These former students desperately need the money, too. The average graduate today owes $35,000 in student loans, and both the amount of debt per borrower and the number of borrowers continue to grow.

Graduates do want work; they’re just having trouble finding it.

Absent Skills

Some blame the job market for recent graduates’ struggles, but universities need to do more to prepare students for the world outside of academia. More than half of recent graduates report that their universities never taught them how to create a résumé, conduct themselves in an interview, or search for available jobs.

Students today receive discipline-specific education but come out of college lacking the non-cognitive soft skills that employers want, such as communication, organization, the ability to prioritize tasks, problem-solving, and decision-making. These students advance through challenging curriculums, but their schools provide the task, the process, and the solution — preventing students from developing the independent, self-starter capabilities employers expect in new hires.

This soft skills gap permeates all disciplines. An accountant might be excellent in theory, possessing all of the hard skills necessary to succeed in his field, but if his life management abilities are subpar, employers will hesitate to entrust him with real responsibility.

Closing the Gap

To resolve this dilemma, higher education needs to incorporate more career-centric preparation throughout the student journey.

Universities can take these three steps to better prepare students for the outside world:

1. Move career discussions forward. Engage students in career-planning discussions, beginning at enrollment and continuing throughout their time at school. In a competitive job market, a halfhearted career development seminar in the final semester isn’t sufficient.

2. Teach non-academic skills. Integrate non-cognitive soft skill development into the curriculum. Students of all disciplines need to be able to write business emails, create presentations, and collaborate with multi-disciplined teams on group projects.

3. Encourage and facilitate internships. Some schools and specialized majors already do this well, but students in every field can benefit from practicing their skills in actual workplace environments. These internships don’t always have to be in the student’s target field; real-life business experience translates across every discipline.

As the job market continues to recover from the recession of the late 2000s, students have great prospects on the horizon. In an improving employment landscape, it’s more important than ever that universities prepare students for the coming challenges of the real world so they can make the most of the tremendous opportunities that lie ahead of them.

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