Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why are Employers Dissatisfied With Universities?

Employers want more from recent college graduates than they're getting.  Take a look at this table summarizing abilities where employers think recent US college and university graduates should be better.  (I'd guess they'd say the same of graduates with master's degrees and Ph.D.s.)

Obviously, institutions have general education programs that are supposed to teach students how to use knowledge in order to think in these ways.  So why do these gaps persist?  All universities need bigger budgets and brighter incoming students. But that doesn't mean that we can't do better with our current students and our current budgets. I think three mistaken notions are interfering with our ability to graduate more capable students.

Mistaken Notion #1: In order to learn to solve unfamiliar complex problems, students must spend more than 90% of their class time and homework time studying what experts have accomplished or discovered in the past.  
Reality: Suppose you wanted to become physically stronger.  What fraction of your workout time should you spend watching exercise videos?  It does comfort many students and faculty when students spend most of their time learning from experts. But to become capable, a student must work on a startlingly large number of problems, and get good coaching as they do so.
Pick a degree program in which you teach.  How's the current balance between learning from experts versus personally doing the work of the field? (One of our Teaching Day speakers, Anders Ericcson, will address this point this coming Friday, October 4.)

Mistaken Notion #2: To develop a capability such as writing, the student should take (only) one course on that capability. 
Reality: Suppose you needed to be able to lift a 100 pound weight tomorrow.  Would it have been sufficient preparation to lift weights intensively in 2010, and then lift nothing until you needed that skill in 2013? Neural science research demonstrates that mental capabilities decay with disuse, just as physical strength does.
That's why some academic programs at institutions like Stanford are now using a 'spiral' approach to designing courses of study.  Crucial capabilities are periodically developed, a bit at a time, in course after course. Each time the student returns to a concept or way of thinking, it's developed further, applied in a new context, and at a greater level of sophistication.

Theory #3: To succeed in X after graduation, study only X.  (For example, if you want to become a successful chemist in the world, it's sufficient to take only chemistry courses, plus direct prerequisites such as physics and mathematics.)  
Reality:   Notice how many of those gaps about which employers are grumbling are at least partly outside the fields where faculty in a department do their research and publishing. For example:
  • 89% of employers thought that recent college graduates are too weak in written and oral communications.   (To test whether your students are getting enough practice, coaching and instruction in communication, ask some of your employer alumni to judge a random sample of written and oral communications by students who are soon to graduate.  Our Assessment Office can help you with this.  Do your judges see communications capability as a strength of your students?)
  • 81% of employers believed that recent college graduates are too weak in critical thinking and analytic reasoning;  79% were dissatisfied with their ability to apply what they've learned to real world problems; 75% asserted that recent graduates are too weak in complex problem-solving. Real world tasks and jobs usually require knowledge from their major used wisely in combination with other kinds of knowledge.  For example, graduates need to be able to organize in teams, and deal with dysfunctional teams.  How many courses in each degree program offer students practice, instruction and coaching in that area? How would a panel of your alumni rate the skills of current graduates in that area?
  • 75% of employers wanted more from recent graduates in ethics. How many courses in your program contribute to a student's ability to reason and act ethically? 
The Association of American Colleges and Universities' LEAP program has been collecting examples of programs that take a different approach to developing these essential learning outcomes (capabilities). And accreditors (and perhaps the Feds) seem to be gradually moving toward paying attention to how we teach and judge (assess) students' development in these areas; the Lumina Foundation's Degree Qualification Profile is intended to be a tool for such assessment and perhaps regulation.

I suspect that university graduates, their employers, and accreditors will soon be paying more attention to what universities like GW are doing to help graduates do well in all these dimensions of a liberal education, no matter major or graduate program they're in.

Do you agree? Would the changes advocated by AAC&U and others be a step forward for your program, or a really bad idea?


  1. But this analysis omits a critical component: student motivation. Students want a credential rather than an education, and perhaps we foster that by creating every more specialized "majors" and by stressing the financial benefit of any given credential. We also probably contribute to that by treating general education as what a colleague once referred to as a "speed bump," as something to "get out of the way." And, though we're getting better, higher ed in general (with some exemplary exceptions like nursing) is terrible at defining learning outcomes.

    But to get back to the students. As a teacher of first-year writing many years ago, I endeavored to demonstrate the value of writing in other disciplines. So I had faculty from other departments come speak to my class once each term. And what happened? The students ARGUED with those other faculty. "Why should you care?" they asked.

    Maybe we need employers to give talks at freshman orientation or in first year seminars to help students value the skills employers need. To a certain extent, it doesn't matter what employers value or how closely they work with educators or even how we construct our curricula, if our STUDENTS (and their parents) don't value those skills and ways of learning. We lead 'em to the water but it's much more difficult to make 'em drink!

  2. First, my perspective is that of someone who has been working in the pharmaceutical industry for more than 30 years, a considerable part of that time in executive roles; I suspect that I am not much different than someone working in any sector for that long.

    It amuses me to see that employers want recent graduates, whose relatively lower salaries they want to pay, to have the abilities which only years of real work experience can bring. It is in line with the fact that, in advertising positions, the level of experience which will be paid is 2-3 years and the quality of experience which is wanted is 10 - 20 years.

    Get students the tools and orientation they need while they are in the university and do that as efficiently as possible. Then get them out of there and let them use the tools, throw them into the work world and get them the best coaching available (which also might not be ideal) and let them truly develop. Apprenticeships and work-study programs are some possibilities, but there might be more.

    Keep in mind that at the university the students are paying to get the tools. In industry the employees are being paid to apply those tools. The free market does work in this situation, but unfortunately with too great a delay - those who are in the lag will suffer. Industry liaison offices and exposure of decision making and classroom educators to the work environment might help here.