Article written by Chad Wiedenhofer, SVP, First American Education Finance
For tomorrow’s students, job placement has arguably never been more important in deciding which college or university to attend. That’s why it’s critical that we continue to ask ourselves, “what are the qualities that make a recent graduate valuable to employers, and how does their experience at our academic institutions help instill and cultivate those qualities?”
A recent Higher Education Research Institute survey of incoming freshman shows a significant increase in the importance of economic factors—and specifically job placement— in the process of selecting a college1. For many colleges and universities, engaging employers is a important strategy to improve and evolve academic programs. The goal, of course, is to produce graduates that are demanded by today’s employers. While many schools continue to make progress, the process remains a challenge.
While many graduates believe they are prepared for the workforce, employers disagree. This finding was published in the Association of American Colleges and Universities Employer Survey and Economic Trend Research Report2.
The most significant gaps between student skills and employer demands include a perceived lack of critical thinking skills, communication skills, decision making, and the ability to work effectively in teams. In these key “soft skill” areas, a shocking 70% of employers find recent graduates lacking.
In an age when knowledge and information is at your fingertips, employers want recent graduates with the softer skill set required to think critically about business challenges and opportunities. They want graduates who can identify and interrupt information, analyze data, and communicate practical solutions (both written and orally) to problems informed by research individually and in team settings.
What is it that employers are looking for in recent graduates?
Dynamic and meaningful internship, externship, or cooperative education (co-op) experiences
School programs that include experience in problem solving and critical thinking in real world business settings provide a stage for students to audition. This gives employers the chance to evaluate how the student framed the problem or opportunity, how they developed an understanding of the challenges, what potential solutions were recommended, and whether they communicated all of this effectively. The ability to rise to these challenges is vital to the key stakeholders involved in the process. Schools like Northeastern University are recognized for placing students in its “world class co-op program,” receiving top recognition from both the Princeton Review and U.S. News.
During Northeastern’s co-op program, students alternate classroom studies with real world applications and full-time work for six months. The six-month co-op cycles allow students to hone their skills and apply classroom knowledge by spending time working on challenging long-term projects. More than 90% of students participate in at least one co-op program, and more than 50% of those students receive a job offer from a previous co-op employer.
Unique opportunities to work within teams
The ability to effectively work within teams is essential in any professional environment. Schools that provide students the opportunity to work on complex problems, and communicate and collaborate in team settings help to better prepare students for the challenges of today.
In 2007, Cornell University established the Cornell Consulting Group (CCG) to give students a unique opportunity to provide strategic consulting services to businesses. A dedicated small team of students (typically 3-5 per team) spends a semester consulting across a range of industry and functional areas.
From industries like financial services and manufacturing, to functional areas like marketing and corporate finance, students receive firsthand experience engaging with complex business problems. Students of CCG work together to apply classroom lessons, leverage data driven research, and make impactful recommendations to help organizations accomplish their goals.
At the end of the semester, each team presents a full–length plan to the consulting client where they introduce their research and conclusions. The students then engage in Q&A with the
organization leaders, providing students key lessons in business communication. The process also produces a thorough written report of recommendations and conclusions for each consulting client. The total experience provides students with an incredible and highly functional opportunity to improve teamwork and communication while having a great impact on organizations.
Organized mentoring and interview preparation
Graduating with the belief that a degree will lead straight to a job is a false reality. Schools can help students understand that planning, preparation, and investing in relationships are key to landing the right job for them after graduation. Schools have a wealth of human resources at their disposal through alumni, faculty and parents. Leveraging these resources to support the recent graduates can be a unique differentiator.
For many schools, organized mentoring programs like the one at Claremont McKenna College can be a highly effective way to strengthen school connections and relationships. Claremont’s
Mentor Connect Program is a collaborative effort to “create and foster professional mentor/mentee relationships between the school’s accomplished alumni, parents, and current students.”
The program matches mentors and mentees based on areas of interest, and relationships are facilitated through the Mentor Connect Program for a 10-week period during the academic year. The program provides a Mentoring Handbook to assist both students and mentors in getting the most out of the program.
In addition, many schools are doing more to offer educational classes to prepare students for interviewing in today’s job market. Topics typically range from how to effectively communicate academic and work–related experiences to teaching students how to evaluate potential employers—an often overlooked but important topic that can be the foundation of building a great relationship with your first employer. Teaching students about the interview process and practicing mock interviews will further prepare students for a successful job search.
For companies like First American Education Finance, tomorrow’s students will play an essential role in our future success. Recent graduates shape the future of a company’s culture, drive innovation, and develop new ideas that address various business challenges and opportunities. And many employers are intensely focused on identifying the very best recent graduates and creating an environment that empowers employees. Such a hiring strategy can be a competitive differentiator for employers in any industry, and the takeaways should be of interest to the Higher Educational Institutions that help prepare these recent graduates.
It is critical that we continue to ask ourselves, “what are the qualities that make a recent graduate valuable to employers, and how does their experience at our academic institutions help instill and cultivate those qualities?”
Source1: “The American Freshman: Fifty-Year Trends | 1966 - 2015”. Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. 2015
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Source2: Employer Survey and Exonomic Trend Research Report. Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2015