Recruitment & Retention

Addressing Disconnect Between Student Skills and Employer Needs

By Caralee J. Adams — March 11, 2015 3 min read
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Austin, Texas

What students are learning in school and what employers need on the job often are two different sets of skills. That much was largely agreed upon by the educators, business leaders, and technology experts gathered here this morning at a SXSWedu session. When it came to whom to blame and how to solve the disconnect—fingers were pointed in all directions and the ideas were endless.

To frame the discussion on the skills gap, speakers highlighted the high percentage of college graduates who are unemployed or underemployed(over half by some accounts) at the same time businesses have millions of jobs they can’t fill with qualified workers.

Part of the blame rests on K-12 and higher education, where educators are still focused on content when employers want creative problem solvers, contended Tony Wagner, an expert in residence at the Harvard University Innovation Lab.

“What the world cares about is not what you know. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know,” said Wagner.

While the education system still favors individual achievement and specialization, the innovative workplace today places more value on teamwork and broader knowledge, said Wagner. Schools are set up around risk avoidance and compliance, yet businesses want workers who are engaged and learn by trial and error. To change what is taught, there needs to be a change in what is measured, he added.

Too often, young college grads don’t have practical work experience, know how to rebound from failure, or network, said Kristin Hamilton, a co-founder of Koru, a Seattle-based company that provides training on career skills. Rather than being given a structured assignment or job description, employers now want workers who can hit the ground running and tackle a “buffet of problems” as part of a group, she said.

“The gap between what [recent graduates] learned in college and what’s happening in the job market is vast and it’s a massive mystery to people coming out of college,” said Hamilton. “Despite going to great schools and having high GPAs, they are not job ready. It’s not just the wrong skills, they are missing the right mind sets.”

Through surveys and research, Koru has identified seven skills that employers want in new hires: grit, polish, teamwork, impact, curiosity, ownership, and analytical rigor.

How is it that Millenials don’t have these basic skills? Hamilton suggests that some “helicopter parents” did their children a disservice doing too much for them and rescuing them from setbacks.

Perhaps employers are shirking their role in job training?

Businesses are willing to train new employees on the systems particular to their companies, maintains Hamilton. But they expect new hires to come in with basic communication skills and a sense of personal responsibility on the job, she added.

Zach First, a senior managing director at the Drucker Institute, a think tank based in Claremont, Calif., said the nature of work and the speed of the workplace has changed, but recent graduates often don’t have the time-management skills to adapt.

Wagner suggested that project-based learning is one way schools can teach students those skills and give students experience with collaboration and working on long-term assignments.

In some cases, unemployment stems not from lack of so-called “soft skills” but the field of study altogether, others suggested.

Too often, students overlook training at a community college, which can equip many for in-demand, middle-level jobs, said Felix W. Ortiz III, founder of Viridis Learning, a Brooklyn, N.Y-based technology company. It provides community colleges with a case-management system to help students decide on careers that match with local employer demand. The platform is now used on about 10 campuses, including City University of New York.

“The pathways are not always aligned,” said Ortiz in Austin today. “There is a huge mismatch.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett, who serves on the Viridis board and spoke at a SXSWedu panel, said students who are falling short of what employers want often need to focus on improving their literacy and practical math skills. He also endorsed the use of technology to better align workplace openings with educational goals.

“The needs are great,” said Bennett. “We need instruments that connect up interests and opportunities from employers with skills and abilities for students.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.