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What skills do employers value but find recent college graduates are weak in?

That was one of the questions we explored as part of the College to Career Success project, which explored attitudes toward the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ essential learning outcomes (ELOs) among “line managers,” defined as employers supervising recent graduates.

More than 2,700 institutions across 141 countries have downloaded, used as written or adapted the AAC&U VALUE Rubrics, each of which lays out criteria for evaluating student achievement in relation to a given ELO. As educational researchers, we wondered: a) if employers were aware of the ELOs and corresponding rubrics, considering they are so widely used in academia, b) how line managers rank the outcomes, c) which of the top outcomes are weakest, and d) if there are any discrepancies with the definitions of each outcome and corresponding rubric elements.

In fall 2020 and spring 2022, we held focus groups with line managers who were asked to rank 13 of the ELOs (renamed “skills” for the focus group), to discuss existing weaknesses in the top-ranked skills and to clarify the definitions of the top-ranked skills. Line managers participating in focus groups represented the following industries: beverage manufacturing, computer hardware/software, financial services, higher education, investment banking, investment management, medical technology, oil and gas, and professional services.

How Employers Rank the Skills

Our findings from both focus groups found commonalities between line managers’ perceptions of skills and those of executives and hiring managers surveyed by AAC&U in 2021. All three of these groups identified critical thinking, inquiry and analysis, problem solving, teamwork, and written communication as top-ranked skills. The differences between the two groups were creative thinking and oral communication, which were more important for the line managers. Ethical reasoning and integrative learning were ranked higher by the executives and hiring managers.

Most perplexing to us between the three sets of data is the commonality of the following four bottom skills: foundation and skills for lifelong learning, global learning, intercultural knowledge and competence, and quantitative literacy. We asked line managers why these skills ranked in the bottom tier. They indicated that while foundation and skills for lifelong learning, global learning, and intercultural knowledge and competence skills are important, they are not expected from a recent graduate. These three skills can be developed during employment and are usually acquired as recent graduates advance within the organization. Additionally, line managers indicated that quantitative literacy could be combined with problem solving, although they mentioned updating the definition.

While not a focus of our research, line managers were asked if any skills were missing from the list of 13 we asked them to rank. It was not surprising when they mentioned skills commonly called mind-sets, such as attention to detail, digital literacy, humility, initiative, professionalism and taking risks/willingness to fail. The AAC&U 2021 survey identified similar mind-sets as very important: drive/work ethic (65 percent), ability to take initiative (63 percent), self-confidence (62 percent), leadership (53 percent) and empathy (50 percent).

Identification of Weakest Top Skills

We gathered further information from line managers to determine specific weaknesses in the top-ranked skills. After compiling open-ended survey results and analyzing the focus group transcripts, we concentrated on the most valued but weakest of these top skills—critical thinking, interrelated problem solving and written communication.

Although the two top-ranked skills, critical thinking and problem solving, were ranked one and two for one focus group versus two and one for the other focus group of line managers, both were adamant that these thinking skills transcend any field. Interestingly during the discussions, they often conflated each with the other. Further, they agreed that being prepared to use these related skills is essential when graduates are first hired, with the necessity growing in recent years due to the responsibilities new hires now have compared to 10 or 20 years ago.

Line Managers’ Perceptions of Weakest Top Skills

The following quotes expand on these perceptions of the most valued but weakest skills and may be used to inform instruction.

Critical thinking and problem solving. Line managers agreed that critical thinking and problem-solving skills are essential to all careers and emphasized higher education’s role in advancing these skills:

Critical thinking is something that needs to be learned and practiced. To me it’s the No. 1 thing that is not taught enough in universities. The most effective way to teach critical thinking that can be used in the business world is through simulated company projects that are embedded with messy details, some of which are purposely wrong. When they graduate, it is vital that they can critically think their way through a problem and do not need to be told what to do next. Doesn’t matter if I am selling widgets or providing a service—a problem is a problem. Most can be dissected in a critical thinking manner regardless of how familiar they are with the subject matter.

The quote above underscores the interconnectivity of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

More specific to critical thinking concerns was a view expressed by one line manager, and echoed similarly by other line managers: “Newer employees (e.g., recent grads) often want to provide perspectives that they think their supervisor or leader wants to hear versus offering a different perspective that might be controversial yet very important to further the thinking of the team.”

During the discussion about critical thinking, the line managers mentioned other new graduates’ challenges with critical thinking/problem-solving skills, such as, “They often move too quickly to find a solution or address a problem, offer surface-level observations, and fail to think carefully about the issue at hand before responding to it.”

Multiple line managers reported similar observations. “They often don’t think through why something is a problem and often prioritize speed over accuracy, sometimes miss the bigger picture, are too quick to finish and check the box, and often don’t consider the wider consequences,” one said.

Thoughts pertaining more specifically to problem solving indicated that recent graduates “don’t often know how to approach a problem or have a ‘google it’ mentality.” A different line manager said that recent graduates demonstrate “not knowing where and how to start when given a problem/challenge that is not well defined. I would expect that graduates would know how to break down a problem into its various components and then make some assumptions and/or be creatively resourceful to provide a possible solution or solution options.”

According to one interviewee, “Critical thinking is the foundation level of problem solving. If that foundation is not strong or missing, then problem solving by default is a weakness.”

Written communication. One overriding theme we heard is that many new graduates typically communicate as though they are texting, with little awareness of context and audience. One line manager stated that written communication is “weakest as they tend to write like everything is a text.” Another stated, “We don’t teach these skills and expect them to be present when they are hired.”

Weaknesses in preparing presentations were summarized by a different line manager:

They need to understand your audience and the level of detail required for that audience. No. 2 not paying attention to mathematical details. The numbers on the presentation should always stick and tie to the actual numbers, and all calculations should be airtight. Their inability to effectively story tell … understand the purpose of your presentation and be able to think through how best to communicate that purpose.

One participant connected writing with critical thinking, stating that most recent graduates struggle to “construct clear and concise arguments,” noting “attention to detail can be problematic” and emphasizing the need for strong thinking and writing skills. Finally, one line manager suggested that we in higher education can better prepare our graduates by giving students “ample chances to create a written document, especially a technical written document.”

Instructional Implications

Below we present some ideas for how instructors may be able to help students better hone their critical thinking, problem-solving and written communication abilities.

As one example, simulations of projects with incomplete or possibly inaccurate details provided might be developed in collaboration with invited employers, the career center and the teaching and learning center. As an alternative, a single faculty member might be able to construct a similar project and discuss it with other colleagues with experience from the field. These types of assignments may help students develop experience uncovering the relevant and less relevant details to use or on which to focus.

In addition, faculty members also might address the line managers’ concern about new graduates “moving too quickly” by developing assignments that outline expectations and a timeline necessary for students to understand the assignment, gather information needed and present a thoughtful, well-informed solution or stronger conclusion. Further because multiple line managers mentioned “moving too quickly,” faculty members might instruct students to follow this process as they complete other writing, critical thinking and problem-solving assignments.

Also, to address students’ issues with finding and using credible evidence, many courses could include discussing and identifying credible evidence for a particular problem, solution or project, as well as what evidence would be sufficient for the specific assignment.

To further develop written communication, assignments might be targeted to different audiences, which may require students to adjust information presentation with the amount and type of information varied accordingly. Sentence structure and formatting also might vary depending upon the audience. Because of the centrality of the audience to successfully communicate in a field, instructors can consider providing assignments with different audiences and explain the variations and the importance of having an awareness of audience differences.

Providing more opportunities to “stretch and flex” students’ ability to apply critical thinking/problem-solving and written communication skills learned in their undergraduate programs will better prepare them for the career environment. Many professional fields have typical types of tasks that are expected of employees; therefore, in these contexts, creating assignments that align with their undergraduate degree experiences and expectations in the working environment are more straightforward.

However, in programs that do not have a specific professional focus, creating appropriate assignments that will encourage students to apply their critical thinking/problem-solving and written communication skills developed in their degree programs to other contexts will require greater effort and collaborations with others. Enabling this transfer of learning is essential for students in the humanities, many social sciences and some science fields. In these cases, building partnerships or at least connections with career services can assist. The centers often are equipped to provide programs and faculty members with the types of skills employers are seeking in graduates from a variety of other fields. Through connections, facilitated by career center specialists, specific employers might be invited to assist faculty members in creating assignments for enabling the transfer of skills learned in their programs to various employment contexts.

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