What employers really want

skills map competence

What employers really want from students is not what too many in higher education still think that they want. As a result of this misperception, students are not as well prepared as they could be.

Honors education strives to provide precisely this combination of specialized and broad knowledge and skills that employers are looking for and that life in the 21st century demands. There is a growing emphasis on competence, especially in a global context. For a previous discussion of this – with lots of comments from students – see this post.

Here is a recent useful juxtaposition by Robert J. Sternberg in The Chronicle between what some educators think employers want and what they actually do want:

Reading the recent literature in the field of higher education, you might notice that what educators think employers want involves several trends:

1. Employers want students to have college majors that provide them with readily transferable job knowledge and skills. The more professional the major, the better.

2. They want students who have had access to top-quality means of knowledge transfer. In this view, perhaps MOOCs are hot because, in the ideal, the lectures would cost the students (and the colleges) next to nothing and be taught by the most famous scholars in the world.

3. They want students who have demonstrated, through grades and standardized-test scores, that they are high achievers. In addition, employers want evidence of knowledge acquired in college.

The problem is that none of those three assertions holds up well, at least according to two recent surveys of what employers really want, one conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the other by The Chronicle.

What do employers want? The association surveyed employers in the business and nonprofit sectors to find out what they most value in hiring college graduates.

With regard to Trend No. 1, 93 percent of the employers surveyed said that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.” They were not saying that a student’s major does not matter, but that, overwhelmingly, the thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills a job candidate has acquired in college are more important than the specific field in which the applicant earned a degree. Looking at successful leaders in business and in the nonprofit sector, you find that they have majored in everything under the sun. Many ended up, by choice, pursuing careers in fields other than the one in which they majored.

On Trend No. 2, the association’s survey found that “more than nine in 10” employers surveyed said it was important that job candidates “demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning. More than 75 percent of employers say they want more emphasis on five key areas, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”

Those are not skills optimally developed through passive learning in lecture settings, including MOOCs. Rather, they are skills developed through active learning in settings that encourage dialogue, give-and-take, real-world problem-solving, and active mentorship. Put another way by the association, “Across many areas tested, employers strongly endorse educational practices that involve students in active, effortful work—practices including collaborative problem-solving, internships, senior projects, and community engagements.”

As for Trend No. 3, educators seem to assume that employers want concrete evidence of achievement, in the form of grades, for example. But, the association’s survey found, “employers consistently rank outcomes and practices that involve application of skills over acquisition of discrete bodies of knowledge.” High grades on tests just don’t cut it alone in terms of the broader knowledge and skills that employers value.

A new report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences makes a very similar argument and offers useful practical suggestions for how better to articulate and implement the necessary combination of specific and broad skills, knowledge and dispositions.

Harvard’s response to the decline of the humanities, The Humanities Project, likewise concludes that they need to become more cross-disciplinary, collaborative and engaged.

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One Response to What employers really want

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Great summary. Do you know what sources the person who made the skill map used? I think it is good, but I wondered if it was from a particular source.

    I think one of the challenges – that we are making progress on – is to communicate this not only to educators, but also to students. That is, if they understand why we are teaching in a particular way and toward what end, they can be more amenable to it and see its value.

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