why companies and colleges aren’t working together

March 10, 2013

minimalist office

Generally the informal rule around Weird Things is not to persue the same topic two days in a row, but there are always exceptions, especially in the case of hard data that brings the points discussed the day before into better focus. So while yesterday we talked about the mismatch in what science advisers recommend to the government about the job prospects of STEM grads and what really happens, today we’ll peek at the other side of the debate. As noted previously, one of the reasons why companies today claim they can’t find qualified employees is because they believe that the only qualified employee is one who has done the exact job the position for which they’re hiring entails and anything other than that is an unwarranted gamble. But they’re also very down on colleges overall, with more than half saying that they have trouble finding an applicant pool worthy of their time and dinging the grads’ communication, critical thinking, and problem solving skills in a way that makes it sound as if colleges hand diplomas to anyone.

And yet, amazingly enough, some 93% say that college graduates work out well and make fair and good employees, with the good employee designation being awarded to college graduates more than twice as much as fair to boot. Likewise, more than half believe that a college degree, especially the four year kind, is just as important as it was five years ago, if not more, and about two thirds will refuse to wave any educational requirement before reading a resume. So to sum all of this up, colleges are churning out barely literate, functionally useless candidates who can’t find their way out of a paper bag and are way over their heads when applying for a job, and yet they become good employees and college education is an extremely important qualifier during the hiring process. Wow, and the companies that took this survey criticize college students for a startling inability to communicate since these results are completely contradictory when taken at face value. But you see, there’s an underlying thought that clears up these odd results.

One of the more frequently cited complaints by companies is that college graduates can’t jump into a new job and hit the ground running. Now, this would make sense since colleges teach the theory, the basics, and the science behind something, not necessarily how to do a specific job function, and argue that it’s not their job to do so and never has been. To companies who don’t want to spend money on training, internships, and long term commitments to their employees to mold their workforce over years rather than the quarterly reports, this is unacceptable. They do want college graduates and they do want the colleges to give them the basics, but they’re also looking for colleges to become high end vocational schools. The graduate they want to hire out of school doesn’t just have good grades but can plop behind a desk and use industry standard tools when shown to his or her cube. So when a newly minted computer science grad can’t get into a chair, load up, say Visual Studio, and start weaving a UI with jQuery and Knockout, they think that colleges have come up short in their duty to produce qualified workers.

We can go back and forth about all the issues in higher education today. We can talk about all the useless degree programs, the high profile terrible advice given to young students, the fact that not everybody needs to go to college, and that the current college system can actually stall your career if you don’t balance your degrees and work history just right, and we should try to address the downright predatory and unfair system of student lending in place today. But even though these discussions need to be held to fix the problems we’re facing in colleges, perhaps the most important discussions we need first and foremost are negotiations between academics and companies that hire their students. Certainly colleges do fail some graduates and I’ve seen perfectly bright and intelligent students left years behind the industry despite going to schools with good names and reputations, given unrealistic expectations of what their degrees would do in the real world. At the same time, for companies to force students and parents to pick up a big tab for specific job training and turn professors into underpaid corporate trainers is absurd.

We need to move past nebulous qualitatives and settle some real requirements for what we’re trying to expect from a college education, honestly aware that the system cannot be all things to all people and there needs to be a balance between learning the theory and learning a job. And if we can accomplish that, students will have an easier time deciding their majors, paying on the loans they took out to go to school, and then getting jobs after they’re done. Maybe companies will have more realistic expectations of what colleges can do for them and start training people, just like they did in the good old days, when employees were a lot less disposable than they are today and new hires were expected to grow with the company and expand their skill sets instead of performing the required units of work to then move elsewhere. A good way to start this sort of debates would be to think through the system from the viewpoint of a student rather than how to hit a macro metric that could easily be changed by the powers that be…

Share
  • bad bass

    I’ve seen the same principles at work in the industrial sector. Employers want fresh-faced 18 yr. olds straight out of a voc-ed program with a years worth of on the job training. Their reward? maybe $20k per year if they’re lucky, with 12- 18% of that taken to pay for their benefits package, which, by the way, they cannot opt out of. Then there’s no guarantee of long term employment. If their employer is smaller than, say, 500 people, there’s the daily threat of shop closure. Add in the lack of upward movement in most places. You’re stuck in a highly competitive market with little to no chance of advancement, yet you need highly specialized training to get there. Sound familiar? Even construction trades are beginning to get this way, with new technologies and techniques. And you haven’t mentioned the older workers. 20+ years of experience now useless because of plant closures and consolidations. Starting over and having to compete with that 18 yr. old, for a $10 per hour job. Professionals aren’t the only ones effected. The entire labor market has gone down the tubes. At least I wasn’t burdened with $100k of debt for an education. I was lucky enough to learn by the seat of my pants. That’s probably not possible today.

  • TheBrett

    Like I said in the previous post, it’s because the overall demand and economic growth in this country are still too slow. Get stronger growth and aggregate demand, and employers will become much less picky and inclined to whine about the quality of today’s grads, and more willing to re-train – because they have to if they don’t want to be left behind in the market.

    As for honest requirements, I think there are just too many possible, different ones aside from

    1. Be good at writing and doing basic math in English
    2. Dress and act professionally
    3. Don’t lie about what you can and can’t do.

    To ever really settle down into a list for colleges to practically use to satisfy employers.