Purpose as Well as Paycheck

A new report from Gallup and Bates College shows most students want to find a sense of purpose in their work, but they aren't always succeeding.

April 11, 2019
 
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Recent college graduates want “purpose” in their jobs, but they aren’t always finding it, according to a new survey.

The report, "Forging Pathways to Purposeful Work," from Gallup and Bates College, found that 95 percent of four-year college graduates nationally considered a sense of purpose at least moderately important in their work. (Note: Gallup conducts some surveys for Inside Higher Ed, but this publication was uninvolved in this study.)

But of the graduates who strongly felt that a purpose was important, only 40 percent said they had found a meaningful career. Only 34 percent indicated they were deeply interested in their work, and 26 percent reported that they liked what they were doing on a daily basis.

“This ‘purpose gap’ is a glaring problem for the younger work force, as millennials place a higher priority on purpose in their lives than previous generations, and they look to work more than other sources to find it,” A. Clayton Spencer, president of Bates, said in a statement. “The purpose gap is also a challenge for employers because of a strong correlation between employees’ purpose and engagement and an organization’s bottom line.”

Gallup conducted the online survey of more than 2,200 recent college graduates, 637 hiring managers and 1,037 parents of college students last year. The group also conducted multiple focus groups.

The study came about because of Bates’s interest in purposeful work. The college hosts a Center for Purposeful Work, which was created after the president instructed a group of students and professors to study the concept nearly five years ago. The center helps link students’ passions to their career paths by finding them internships or other opportunities.

"Importantly, we learned that although nearly all college graduates believe finding purpose in one’s work is extremely or very important, less than half have found that purpose," Stephanie Marken, executive director of education research at Gallup, wrote in an email. "Fortunately, we also identified a series of activities that higher education institutions can engage in to increase the odds their graduates find purposeful work -- having an applied job or internship, having someone who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams, being given realistic expectations for their postgraduation employment opportunities, and participating in a program that helps them think about finding meaning in their work."

Bates wanted to know whether certain experiences during students’ undergraduate careers helped them later in their work lives. About 56 percent of students said they secured an internship that allowed them to apply what they were learning in their classes, and 39 percent said they found someone who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams.

About 31 percent of the students who had just one internship reported a high level of purpose in their job. And 34 percent of students who had two or more internships had purpose in their jobs.

Hiring managers in the focus groups said they felt that internships should be required -- they both help students find a job later and figure out what they enjoy.

“These findings lead to the conclusion that colleges and universities need to be more intentional in promoting these experiences to prepare undergraduates,” the report states.

Students reported, too, that many of them didn’t think about how their skills and interests would align to their future work.

Of the students who indicated they had a high level of purpose in their job, about 32 percent started considering what their talents were before they enrolled in college. Another 30 percent began thinking about their skills in terms of their future careers during their first year on campus.

“Students who wait until senior year to have an applied learning experience may miss the opportunity to change their major or set their sights on further education as they realign their career goals and aspirations,” the report states.

Having a sense of purpose at work can affect a graduate’s overall sense of well-being, too. About 59 percent of graduates who reported purpose in their jobs said they had a high sense of well-being. Only 6 percent of students who had a low purpose at work said they had great well-being.

The survey also examined employers’ attitudes about the liberal arts. Other studies have confirmed that employers do tend to value these “soft skills,” and in this survey, hiring managers said they felt that colleges should be teaching students critical thinking skills and to communicate effectively.

The managers said that when they’re considering hiring a candidate, they prioritize critical thinking and communication.

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