There has been extensive hand-wringing about what can be done to help young graduates succeed in today’s tough labor market – especially in the spring, as high school seniors decide on their college offers, and college seniors prepare to graduate and face the world. Unemployment and underemployment rates among recent college graduates in the United States – largely a result of the recession’s lingering damage – are too high. And we’ve all seen the headlines questioning the value of college and the surveys that show employers bemoaning the “preparedness gap.”
But I am full of optimism.
As a university president, I spend far too much time among skilled, talented, motivated young people to be anything but hopeful about the future of higher education and the capabilities of the millennial generation – those born roughly between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. And honestly, surveys by my institution, Bentley University, of recruiters and students don’t reflect these headlines.
It’s perplexing. Is there such a disconnect to good jobs with this generation? And if there is one, let’s figure out how to resolve it instead of repeatedly touting the problem. So we chose to dig a little deeper and try to uncover the real issues. How do key stakeholders actually view the preparedness issue? And, more important, what will it take to ensure that millennials are fully prepared to succeed in the workplace?
We commissioned KRC Research to conduct a comprehensive preparedness survey  of over 3,000 stakeholders, including employers, higher education leaders, students, parents, and recent college graduates. The survey found consensus in surprising places -- from rating recent graduates’ level of workforce preparedness to defining exactly what preparedness means.
One of the most interesting set of findings revealed that businesses are conflicted about the skills they want in their new employees and, consequently, are sending mixed messages to the marketplace. A majority of business decision-makers and corporate recruiters say that hard and soft skills are equally important for success in the workplace. (Hard skills are tangible ones, such as a student’s technical and professional skills, while soft skills include communicating well, teamwork and patience.)
Yet when asked to assess the importance of a comprehensive set of individual skills, business leaders put soft skills at the top of their list and industry and job-specific skills at the bottom; only 40 percent of employers say that the latter are important to workplace success. But while employers say soft skills are vital to long-term career success, they prefer to hire candidates with the industry-specific skills needed to hit the ground running, even if those candidates have less potential for future growth.
In the face of such conflicting information from employers, how should students and educators respond? Should they emphasize soft skills or hard skills?
The answer: This is a false choice. Students don’t need to – and shouldn’t have to – choose between hard and soft skills. It’s important for colleges to arm students with both skill sets -- whether a student is majoring in business or literature. By developing curriculums that fuse liberal arts and professional skills and by providing hands-on learning experiences, we can give our students the range of skills that are critical for the modern workplace.
This “fusion” was one of the popular solutions tested in the survey, and many schools are doing it already. Brandeis University, a private university with a liberal arts focus, says that its new undergraduate business program  is already one of its most popular majors. (Brandeis points out that most of its business majors are double majors.) At West Virginia University, the College of Business and Economics and the School of Public Health have partnered  to create a dual-degree program that will infuse business skills into the field of public health. At Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business , students in the freshman “Ethics of Entrepreneurship” seminar take on a semesterlong project designed to help them flex their critical thinking and writing muscles in a global and social framework.
Bentley has also adopted several strategies to ensure we are preparing our students for success. Virtually every student here majors or minors in business, while simultaneously pursuing a core of arts and sciences courses that focus on expanding and inspiring traditional “business” thinking. We recently expanded on our popular liberal studies major , an optional second major combined with a business major, by launching six-credit “fusion”  courses co-taught by business and arts and sciences faculty. Combinations include a management course (Interpersonal Relations in Management) with an English course (Women and Film) to explore how women are perceived in film and how this can affect management styles; and a global studies course (U.S. Government and Politics) with an economics course (Macroeconomics) to teach how politics and economics work together and to demonstrate that understanding both is often essential to doing either one well.
All this study must be combined with hands-on, “experiential” learning – the pathway to hard skills. This is where business organizations can play an important role. Santander, the global, multinational bank, created a scholarship program  to support academic, research, and technological projects – we are proud to be one of the 800 institutions in their program. Corporate partners can also help shape curriculums to teach skills as they are actually practiced in the workplace. EY LLP (formerly Ernst and Young) worked closely with us to merge accounting and finance for freshmen and sophomores, since those disciplines are inextricably linked in the business environment.
These strategies aim to equip students with both hard and soft skills and they can be adopted and adapted by many colleges. A challenge in higher education is that some academic models can be so discipline-specific that students miss out on cross-disciplinary opportunities to integrate their knowledge. But it doesn’t have to work this way.
Like other colleges and universities that are innovating and experimenting, we are seeing returns on this curricular investment. One way to measure this: our survey of the Class of 2013 shows that 98 percent of responding graduates are employed or attending graduate school full time (this includes information from 95 percent of the class). Retention, number and availability of internships and repayment of student debt are also key metrics.
I encourage my higher education colleagues to refocus their attention on the ways we can work together to strengthen our education models. Millennials, a group that includes our current students, are counting on us to prepare them for successful careers and life. And in the long run, it is an economic imperative that we do so.
Gloria Cordes Larson is president of Bentley University.