Why New Grads Are Disappointing Employers

Are colleges and universities cranking out graduates who aren't ready for the workforce? That seems to be the case based on a wealth of research.

This isn't meant to be another one of those Millennial-bashing articles. If it's true, they're not to blame; however, mounting studies are pointing to the fact that new graduates are lacking certain skills that employers need.

It's not the core STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and math) that employers find most lacking. It's the skills that help an employee navigate the workplace, be creative and grow that employers say new graduates just don't have. It's the lack of what often get called "soft skills"—a term I can't stand because they're clearly not soft—that are making young people less employable.

A survey by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College found that five of the top 10 shortcomings of new graduates (as noted by employers) had nothing to do with their technical skills. They included:

  • Poor work ethic (73%)
  • Lack of critical thinking and problem solving (71%)
  • Lack of communication and interpersonal skills (71%)
  • Inability to think creatively (66%)
  • Lack of teamwork or collaboration (59%)

Compare that list with this one from another study that captured the top 10 skills employers said they were looking for in 2015 graduates:

  1. Ability to work in a team structure
  2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems (tie)
  3. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
  4. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
  5. Ability to obtain and process information
  6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
  7. Technical knowledge related to the job
  8. Proficiency with computer software programs
  9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
  10. Ability to sell and influence others

In our own 2016 McQuaig Global Talent Recruitment Survey, the number one reason that new hires didn't work out was due to a personality or character conflict (53%) and lack of skills was a distant second (20%).

The Business/Academic Disconnect

There's no single answer for why graduates are lacking these important skills. Some point to a generation distracted by screens and video games that have altered the brain; others say that schools are lowering their standards; and some blame helicopter parents who swoop in and solve their children's every problem, preventing them from learning critical problem-solving skills.This last one makes me cringe when I think of how many different HR pros have told me stories of parents coming to job interviews or following up when their child didn't get the job. (The first time I heard it, I thought it was a joke.)

Whatever the reason, there seems to be some denial on the part of colleges and universities. A 2015 study called Youth in Transition, revealed that 83% of educational institutions in Canada believe their grads are well-equipped to enter the workforce. Only 34% of employers agreed, and even the students were skeptical with just 44% agreeing they were well prepared.

Should We Measure Graduates' Soft Skills?

At least one expert in the area is advocating measuring these skills in graduates. An article in The Toronto Star reported that the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario is looking to pilot a project to test incoming students on literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills, and re-test them upon graduating.

"If these skills are so important, it's time to actually test students for them," the article quoted Harvey Weingarten, the group's president, as saying.

I wonder what the long-term implications of this will be. Even if colleges and universities begin to address these gaps and teach some of these critical skills, what of those already in the workforce? Their future success, and the success of the companies that they work for, may be in jeopardy.

Do employers need to take up the cause of training new hires in these skills? What about leadership development and succession management? Do we need to focus these programs on skills like team collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving?

What's your experience with hiring graduates? Are their skills up to snuff?