Overconfident Students, Dubious Employers

A new study identifies the gaps between graduates' views of their skills and the views of those who hire them.

February 23, 2018
 
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College students may believe they’re ready for a job, but employers think otherwise.

At least, that’s according to data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which surveyed graduating college seniors and employers and found a significant difference in the groups' perceptions.

The association surveyed 4,213 graduating seniors and 201 employers on eight “competencies” that it considers necessary to be prepared to enter the workplace. This information comes from the association’s 2018 Job Outlook Survey.

For the most part, a high percentage of students indicated in almost every category they thought they were proficient. Employers disagreed.

“This can be problematic because it suggests that employers see skills gaps in key areas where college students don’t believe gaps exist,” a statement from the association reads.

Figure 1: Employer vs. student perception of proficiency in career readiness competencies, by percentage of respondents. On professionalism/work ethic, 42.5 percent of employers rated recent grads proficient, while 89.4 percent of students considered themselves proficient. On oral/written communications, 41.6 percent of employers rated recent grads proficient, while 79.4 percent of students considered themselves proficient. On critical thinking/problem solving, 55.8 percent of employers rated recent grads proficient, while 79.9 percent of students considered themselves proficient. On teamwork/collaboration, 77 percent of employers rated recent grads proficient, while 85.1 percent of students considered themselves proficient. On leadership, 33 percent of employers rated recent grads proficient, while 70.5 percent of students considered themselves proficient. On digital technology, 65.8 percent of employers rated recent grads proficient, while 59.9 percent of students considered themselves proficient. On career management, 17.3 percent of employers rated recent grads proficient, while 40.9 percent of students considered themselves proficient. On global/intercultural fluency, 20.7 percent of employers rated recent grads proficient, while 34.9 percent of students considered themselves proficient. Source: Job Outlook 2018 (N=201 employing organizations) and The Class of 2017 Student Survey Report (N=4,213 graduating seniors), National Association of Colleges and Employers. The percentages corresponding to “rated proficient” represent, among all responding employers, the percentage who, on a five-point scale, rated recent graduates “very” (4) or “extremely” (5) proficient in the respective competency. The percentages corresponding to “considered proficient” represent, among all graduating seniors from the Class of 2017, the percentage who, on a five-point scale, considered himself/herself either “very” (4) or “extremely” (5) proficient in the respective competency.The biggest divide was around students’ professionalism and work ethic. Almost 90 percent of seniors thought they were competent in that area, but only about 43 percent of the employers agreed.

Nearly 80 percent of students also believed they were competent in oral and written communication and critical thinking, while only roughly 42 percent and 56 percent of employers, respectively, indicated that students were successful in those areas.

Per the survey, only in digital technology skills were employers more likely to feel that students were prepared versus the seniors themselves.

Almost 66 percent of employers rated students proficient in technology compared to 60 percent of the seniors.

But Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup's higher education division, which also conducts research related to graduates and careers, said these sorts of definitions can vary.

For instance, Gallup has found that generally an employer believes that "critical thinking" is coming up with new, original thought. But in an academic sense, it can mean more picking apart ideas in depth, he said.

Written communication can differ, too, he said -- some students might excel at writing technical reports or papers with lots of citations, but these are far different than writing for marketing, Busteed said.

"I think in some ways these studies beg for further exploration," he said.

Busteed also pointed out that the lifestyle for the traditional undergraduate student likely does not match how they will need to operate when they enter the work force.

Undergraduates are typically scheduling classes later in the morning and staying up until the late hours of the night, which does not prepare them for an eight-hour workday, he said.

The easy solution: set students up in a more professional environment, Busteed said -- this could be internships or co-op programs. If students can't go to an actual office, then the environment should be brought to them so they have a better sense of how a workplace runs.

"It's good news because there's real quick fixes, but it's not a prevalent as it should be," he said.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities has conducted similar research. In 2015, it found that students thought they were far better equipped for jobs than employers did.

The AAC&U looked at some of the same measures as the association. Specifically around oral communication, students ranked themselves highly -- about 62 percent of students believed they did well in this area compared to 28 percent of employers. That and written communication showed the biggest gaps in the AAC&U report (27 percent of employers versus 65 percent of students).

“When it comes to the types of skills and knowledge that employers feel are most important to workplace success, large majorities of employers do NOT feel that recent college graduates are well prepared,” the AAC&U report states. “This is particularly the case for applying knowledge and skills in real-world settings, critical thinking skills, and written and oral communication skills -- areas in which fewer than three in 10 employers think that recent college graduates are well prepared.”

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