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What Employers Expect From College Graduates

Jeff Levy

by Jeff LevyIECA Member (CA)

Most families know that if our children are to have a shot at a decent future, a college degree has never been more important. It’s also never been more expensive. Within this pressure cooker of college admission, there has been a lot of heated debate over whether colleges are adequately preparing its graduates for the job market. We’ve seen the headlines: “8 Ways College Could Better Prepare Students for the Job Search,” “Employers Say College Graduates Lack Job Skills,” “Too Many Students, Too Few Jobs.” The picture is of colleges aloft in the clouds teaching Homer and Herodotus while Earth-bound employers are shouting, “More Quantitative Analysis! More Advanced Computer Programming!”

Are colleges producing successful job applicants? To answer this question, American Public Media’s Marketplace teamed up with The Chronicle of Higher Education to survey 700 employers (“The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions,” December, 2012). Nearly a third gave “poor” or “fair” marks to colleges and this became the story. The fact that nearly two-thirds of employers say that colleges are doing a “good” or “excellent” job did not make the headlines. Lesson to future media employees: catastrophe sells, success does not.

Nonetheless, if one-third of prospective employers give colleges between a C and an F in preparing students for the job market, we need to pay attention. How are colleges failing? It turns out that employers are saying something quite different from what we would expect. Here are some key findings from the report:

  • When it comes to the skills needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication, adaptability, managing multiple priorities, and problem solving.
  • Colleges and universities should seek to break down the false dichotomy of liberal arts and career development – they are intrinsically linked.
  • Colleges and universities should support rich experiential opportunities that integrate the liberal arts with real-world learning. This would enhance the communication skills and problem solving skills that are in such high demand.
  • Colleges should go beyond a vision of majors articulating to specific careers. Majors matter to some extent, but in many cases, college major is not the determinant of career entry.

There are many more conclusions to read in the report, but the message is clear. Employers are looking for college graduates who can think globally, communicate effectively, prioritize, and problem-solve. They are fully endorsing the liberal arts as the best approach to learning at the college level, and they are encouraging students to take advantage of internships and other creative ways of integrating their studies with real-world experience.

In his recent book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco makes a fascinating and scholarly argument for the importance of the liberal arts in higher education. The most memorable line in his book may be his quote of Judith Shapiro, who at the time was president of Barnard College. When speaking to a group of young people about what they should expect from college, she said this: “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” We’ve now learned that it will also help you get hired.

11 Responses to What Employers Expect From College Graduates

  1. Jane Hoffman says:

    FANTASTIC piece, Jeff! I would expect no less!

  2. Great blog Post Jeff. I just shared it on my facebook page!

  3. Alan Haas says:

    Bingo….once again, Jeff!! Many thanks.

  4. You’re singing my song, Jeff. The old saying still holds true: that the liberal arts prepare you for not for your first job but for your best job. I wish college placement offices were more committed to helping their graduates make that case to employers.

  5. This is excellent! I am putting copies on my table for clients in the reception area in my new office. Thanks for the contribution.

  6. Sue Hansen says:

    Students should seek out preprofessional programs, i.e., engineering, computer programming, business, etc, that require a rich
    liberal arts curriculum before entering the major – there’s no reason that professional programs and the liberal arts need to be mutually exclusive.

  7. Tony Mould says:

    The need to focus more on liberal arts as a tool to develop better language and communication skills is well supported in this article. As a math teacher I could observe in many students the inability to understand and formulate problems as a first step to find solutions. It is great to teach them that math is just another language which follows many of the rules that natural language possesses, too.

  8. Jeff,

    As someone who spent 20 years in human resources, specifically “talent management”, before becoming an IEC, I am in absolute agreement. If a candidate can write well and is articulate and personable, they are at least a finalist for most entry-level positions. If they can demonstrate thoughtfulness and and problem solving skills, too, they will definitely get the job!

  9. Lou Centanni says:


    Nice succinct piece that spells out the priorities well. I have been saying this for years – the liberal arts do train students in communication and problem solving skills. I don’t know how many times I have heard parents comment about the uselessness of English, philosophy and history majors, unless one wants to teach. An English major, for instance, is one that enhances one’s communication skills perhaps better than any major. Strong communication skills are vital in almost all professional careers. This reminds me of an article I read years ago which indicated that more CEO’s had liberal arts degrees than business degrees.

  10. Thanks, Jeff, for reiterating what I’ve been saying for years! If you can’t think creatively, communicate effectively, and adapt appropriately, the job market might just skip past you! I love your reference to internships as well.

  11. Pingback: What Employers Expect From College Grads | Valerie Deutsch College Advisory

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