Colleges Aren't Preparing Students for the Workforce: What This Means for Recruiters

July 1, 2015

A college degree has traditionally been a strong indicator that a candidate will succeed in an entry-level job. Unfortunately, colleges in the U.S. are failing to prepare students for the workforce, which is forcing corporations to change their hiring practices.

The failure of academia

According to a recent McKinsey study, only one out of four employers believes that traditional universities are "doing an adequate job of preparing graduates for the workplace."

A similar study from Instructure revealed that "only 8% of managers say entry-level employees are very prepared to contribute immediately at work." That study further found that "most entry-level employees aren't meeting management expectations."

What's going on? Why are U.S. colleges and universities no longer producing job-ready candidates? The reason lies in three major trends:

1. Academia is teaching obsolete skills.

Because the business world is changing so quickly, academia has been left behind. For example, many of the new jobs being created in today's economy are in B2B sales. However, only a small handful of colleges teach sales, even in their MBA programs.

Similarly, the ability to write clearly and concisely has never been so important in business environments. Over 182 billion emails are sent and received every day. The emails most likely to be read and acted upon tend to be short and to the point.

Unfortunately, colleges and universities still teach writing through the assignment of term papers and reports that have an average length of between five and seven pages, according to Florida International University.

2. Academia has lowered its standards.

Fifty years ago, the average GPA for Dartmouth graduates in 1965 was 2.66; in 2015 that average is 3.42. According to another study, the most frequently awarded grade at Harvard is an "A." In today's colleges, students who show up for classes rarely flunk out.

To make matters worse, cheating has become endemic. According to a 2006 study by the Academy of Management, more than half (56%) of MBA candidates admitted to plagiarizing, copying from other students, and bringing prohibited materials to exams.

Cheating occurs with alarming frequency even at prestigious universities, like Harvard, which recently investigated 125 students for allegedly cheating on their take-home exams.

3. Academia treats students like customers.

For hundreds of years, academia treated students as young minds to be cultivated. Today, however, U.S. colleges and universities tend to see students as customers to be milked. Nowhere is this clearer than in the for-profit segment of academia.

At Corinthian Colleges, for example, would-be students (often low-income or recently discharged veterans) were induced to take on huge student loans to take courses of dubious value. The U.S. government is now suing Corinthian for "illegal predatory lending."

Public colleges have also jumped on the gravy train. According to a study from the Urban Institute, tuition at public colleges in Arizona, Georgia and Washington State have increased 77%, 75% and 70% respectively over the past five years.

Corporations must adapt

Obviously, recruiters who need to hire top candidates today can't wait the several decades it will take to reform the U.S. system of higher education. Fortunately, companies can take several steps today to fill the gaps:

1. Delve deeper to find the work ethic.

As The Fiscal Times recently put it "nearly three-quarters of hiring managers complain that millennials – even those with college degrees – aren’t prepared for the job market and lack an adequate 'work ethic.'"

In the past, a college degree (especially with a high grade-point average) was a pretty good indicator that a candidate had a good work ethic. Since that's no longer the case, recruiters should delve more deeply into the candidate's experience.

To do this, focus on digging deeper into a few areas during the interview - find out what they've achieved that they are most proud of and what truly motivates them. Their answers will give you more insight into their character than the responses you would get from the typical interview questions.

2. Hire for attitude rather than skills.

According to the Instructure study, 85 percent of managers are hiring based on attitude and work ethic and then hope to effectively train employees to develop other skills they need to excel in an entry level position."

Hiring based on attitude not only ensures that job candidates will be successful when hired, it can also increase the number of potential job candidates, especially if attitude is weighed more heavily than the presence or absence of a college degree.

This strategy has certainly worked for Chipotle, where many store managers lack college degrees but were hired and promoted because they exhibited the right attitude.

3. Increase corporate training budgets.

A survey of 375 major corporations conducted by The American Society of Training and Development revealed that in 2002, companies only spent from 1% to 3% of their total payrolls on employee training.

Not surprisingly, that amount has been growing each year. According to researchers at Deloitte, corporate training grew by 15% in 2014 to reach over $70 billion.

While that sounds like a huge amount of money, the U.S. spends $531 billion every year on higher education, a figure that doesn't count the interest on student loans, which probably takes that number well over a trillion.

Increased investment in corporate training would also benefit society at large. Fewer students would go into crippling debt, and those who can't attend college would receive more and more attractive job opportunities.

College and university students would also benefit because, if they knew that they'd receive the training they'd need after they're hired, they'd be more likely to use their college years to expand their life rather than prepare (badly) for their first job.

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*Image from Michael Matti
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