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Career Preparation: Helping Students Frame a Path and “Connect the Dots”

Public Policy Division
March 8, 2015 Amy Johnson, Ed.D. Eastern Washington University

Last month, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) published the results of its survey research in which employers and college students were asked a series of questions about students’ career preparation.  The AACU surveyed 613 students at public and private two- and four-year colleges and compared the results with survey results from 400 employers (all of whom represent organizations with at least 25 employees and who maintain that 25% of their new hires hold either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree).  The findings are rather disconcerting, as employers gave college graduates relatively low scores across several key learning outcomes and students gave themselves much higher marks:

Percentages of respondents stating recent college graduates are well prepared in each area
Employers Students
Ethical judgment and decision-making 30% 62%
Locating, organizing, and evaluating information 29% 64%
Oral communication 28% 62%
Written communication 27% 65%
Analyzing/solving complex problems 24% 59%
Being innovative/creative 25% 57%

Another key takeaway from this research is that the skills employers find most valuable are those that cut across all disciplines: the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems (Hart Research Associates, 2015, p. 1).  This reinforces what those of us in Student Affairs understand in terms of the relevance of our work and the student learning we facilitate, helping students develop cognitive, interpersonal, leadership, and other skills—often in an applied context.

As student development educators, one of the important implications of this research for our work is that we facilitate student learning both within and beyond the bounds of their academic disciplines, serving as a conduit between in-class and out-of-class educational experiences.  Additionally, we function as a key communication link to those holding us accountable for students’ post-college employment success—parents, policy-makers, and employers—responsible for sharing progress in the fulfillment of these outcomes.

As another reference point identifying a disconnect between student and employer perceptions of college graduates’ preparation for the working world is identified by York College of Pennsylvania’s Center for Professional Excellence (CPE), which conducts annual research regarding recent college graduates’ professionalism in the workplace.  The CPE has researched different populations’ views of workplace professionalism over the years, including those held by recent college graduates, human services professionals, employers/managers, college and university career development personnel, and others.

In January 2015, the CPE released findings from its Recent College Graduates survey, which sampled 519 recent college graduates between 23-28 years old across the nation.  The Recent College Graduates survey found that 62.2% of respondents felt they had the necessary professional skills to succeed in the work force.  The percentage of respondents who indicated their college had prepared them for work total 52.6%, with 31.8% reflecting ambivalence about their college preparation for the workplace.

In 2013, the CPE conducted similar research with a national sample of 401 human services professionals who are responsible for hiring new college graduates.  These findings have been compared to three previous years’ research results, offering an opportunity to identify potential trends.  One of the areas of focus involves employer representatives’ identification of the qualities related to professionalism. 

Based upon four years of data (from 2009-2013), the CPE identifies that an employee should demonstrate the following professional qualities:

  • Work until a task is completed competently
  • Interpersonal skills including civility
  • Appropriate appearance
  • Punctuality and regular attendance
  • Communication skills
  • Honesty
  • Focused/attentive

The findings from these CPS professionalism surveys reinforce that employers’ expectations of their new employees (and recent college graduates) are not being met—and the results have not improved over time.

2009 2010 2012 2013

Respondents feeling less than 50% of new employees exhibit professionalism in their 1st year

38.9% 38.2% 40.8% 48.6%

Respondents reporting a decrease in the % of new employees demonstrating professionalism

33.2% 23.7% 33.1% 35.9%

Taken together, these findings should give us pause. 

Although public policy makers increasingly demand that colleges and universities become accountable for their graduates’ workforce preparation—a demand that schools are working hard to meet and substantiate—we should also ask ourselves whether the concerns regarding student preparedness are more elemental.  Strong oral and written communication skills, the ability to problem-solve, honesty and ethical decision-making, and effective interpersonal skills may all be honed in college.  But for students to be most successful, they don’t start there.

As parents, educators, and policymakers, what can we do to lay this foundation earlier?  And once students reach college, how can we reinforce and extend this early learning?

  • Throughout students’ educational experiences, find opportunities to integrate in-class and out-of-class learning.
    • Encourage students to share what they’re learning in school and pursue opportunities outside of the classroom to “connect the dots” with what they discuss and discover inside the classroom.
    • Encourage students to seek out jobs appropriate for their age and level of maturity, periodically assessing the professional skills they’ve learned in these roles and how they might apply to career plans.
    • At the high school and college levels, seek out strong internship programs and concurrent courses that encourage students to develop links between what they learn during their internship and the classroom—and then tie these to career aspirations and “marketable” skills/talents.
  • Create educational environments where students are active participants in the learning process.
    • Facilitate student-directed and team-based learning approaches where appropriate.  Encourage students to be able to learn (and work in) an array of contexts and environments.
    • Establish high expectations and provide resources to help students achieve them.  Hold students accountable for doing so.  Celebrate successes.
    • At the high school and college levels, recognize students’ growth and development as emerging adults.  Require them to take responsibility for their decisions and actions—and help them assess why they make the choices they do.  Assist them in identifying options if they get “stuck,” but leave the assessment of pros/cons and decision-making to students.
  • Help students develop and set goals to reach their educational, personal, and professional aspirations.
    • Promote exploration of career and other personal goals early.
    • Prompt students to consider their wide-ranging interests and frame objectives, both short-and long-term.  Help them pursue options and try out possibilities.
  • Encourage experiences that will help students succeed and feel confident in diverse environments, from the workforce to our increasingly global communities.
    • Embolden students to take calculated risks and try new things.
    • Maximize students’ opportunities to interact with individuals from different backgrounds and life experiences.
    • Stress civility, teaching students how to share and negotiate differences of opinion with courtesy and respect.

College is an important step in preparation for the workforce.  Equally significant is the foundation we lay prior to students’ college experience, which is key to setting them up for success in college and an effective launch into their professional roles.  Moreover, educators, employers, parents, and policymakers have a responsibility to define effective partnerships and strategies to make this “work.”