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Employers Say College Grads Lack Hard Skills, Too

Part 3: Managers want their newest workers to get up-to-speed more quickly, but is that expectation realistic?

When Kimon Pope showed up at Goldman Sachs as a college intern in the summer of 2018, it was what he hadn't learned at college that tripped him up.

Pope, then a rising junior, had taken classes designed to give him broad exposure to the world of computer programming. Once at Goldman Sachs, he wished he'd had more classes that delved into specific programming languages and that had kept pace with the newest languages many businesses are using.

"I was able to complete tasks but not as quickly and efficiently as my colleagues," said Pope, who graduated from Virginia State University and is now pursuing his master's degree in information security at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College in Pittsburgh. "It made me think the [college] curriculum needs to be revamped. They just had me learning one programming language, and then everything else was sort of theoretical."

Pope expresses a common frustration among college students and the businesses that hire them: Whether they majored in computer programming, nursing, marketing, accounting or many other areas of study, graduates often find that their courses didn't prepare them for or keep them up-to-date on the technical and practical skills they need in their first jobs.

Otherwise known as hard skills, these are the knowledge and abilities required to perform a job. For instance, in nursing, hard skills could include such capabilities as starting IVs and inserting catheters. In accounting, they could include manipulating an Excel spreadsheet. In marketing, they might be a proficiency with brand measurement tools.

"A four-year degree—or even a two-year degree—cannot keep up with the quick rate of change facing most industries," said Denise Leaser, SHRM-SCP, who is president of GreatBizTools, an HR management products and consulting services company in St. Paul, Minn., and whose daughter just graduated from California's Biola University. "By the time someone graduates, their knowledge is out-of-date."

Employers Say College Education Doesn't Keep Pace with Technology

When Martin Fiore talks with his colleagues, he often hears that managers are disappointed that college didn't equip new hires with what employers consider basic technical and practical skills.  

"Maybe a student took an Excel class at college, maybe level 1 or level 2. Then he goes to work and is asked to do modeling in Excel and [has] no idea how to do it," said Fiore, who is a tax managing partner for the U.S. Eastern region at EY in New York City. "Today's businesses have used Excel as a common language for years, so most people now are very advanced at using it."

Sue Bhatia, founder of Rose International, a staffing agency based in Chesterfield, Mo., told of one graduate—from a top computer-science school—who was overwhelmed after taking his first job in cloud computing.

"He had taken three required calculus classes that didn't prepare him for his job," she said. "A traditional classroom can only teach so much when it comes to emerging technologies."

Teri Blackwell was surprised recently when a woman interviewing for a job running the business end of her medical clinic—and who had a college degree in health care management—couldn't explain how a medical practice makes money.

"That would be something you'd need to understand," said Blackwell, an HR professional for Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates in Charlotte, N.C. "I don't know if she missed something in her college studies or what."

'Turning Around the Queen Mary'

Part of the blame for this gap between the hard skills colleges teach and the skills businesses want may fall on the colleges, some say.

First, college professors and deans can get huffy when outsiders try to dictate what they should teach and how they should teach it.

"They are in an insular world," said Jeffrey Deckman, who created an alliance between Rhode Island employers and colleges to examine the skills gap. "There's a bit of an elitist culture and … professors, if they're tenured, don't have to stay super-current to preserve their position. That will create a dynamic that makes an institution less responsive to companies, which have to adapt exceptionally fast and be agile."

Second, the higher-education system itself may get in the way. Even if colleges want to keep coursework relevant to the work world, that's not easily done.

Adding courses to a degree curriculum, much less restructuring that curriculum, is no small feat. It requires consultation with and approval from many layers of academia. If the college hopes to have a curriculum accredited—something that's not required but nonetheless coveted in the academic world—the school must jump through several time-consuming, bureaucratic hoops. For instance, accreditation often requires that certain courses be taught, even if they seem irrelevant to students working on a major or to those planning to hire those students once they graduate.

"It's like turning around [the ship] the Queen Mary," said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition in Washington, D.C., which advocates for keeping worker skills current with economic demands. "It takes time to get higher education to develop new skills in a curriculum."

Nancy Woolever, SHRM-SCP, is vice president for certification operations at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). As much as colleges want to keep pace with employer demands, she said, that can be a tall order.

"Keep in mind that universities are businesses, too," she said. "They are equally interested in changing with the times, but they have a tendency to move at a much slower pace than businesses in general. I don't think anyone was too horribly surprised that students seemed over time to be slipping further and further behind by not having the technical skills, the hard skills, the soft skills."

And while students need hands-on training in the workplace to keep pace with technology, many institutions don't offer that experience. Most college degree programs do offer internships, but a few months of practical experience crammed between classes and other demands "is not the same as having a deliberate plan to develop skills over an entire four years," said Eric Frazer, a doctor of psychology who teaches at the Yale School of Medicine.

"In my conversations with Millennial and Generation Z students in college and recent graduates, I hear that the institutions put a real emphasis on maintaining academic rigor and the traditional college experience, but they're lagging in the application of that knowledge," he said. "That's fundamentally absent outside of lab work or independent research projects."

Are Businesses Demanding Too Much?

To be sure, part of the blame for this gap may fall on businesses.

While 92 percent of HR professionals say soft skills are equally or even more important than hard skills, many interviewed for this series are skeptical of that claim.

"On the one hand, [employers] say [they want graduates with soft skills], but when colleges talk to businesses that complain about what [colleges] are producing, they get a different answer," said Martin Van Der Werf, associate director for editorial and postsecondary policy at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "What you hear is that students really need to be up-to-date technologically, have kept up with current skills and even have advanced skills."

Large companies tend to have well-oiled systems—classes, coaches, mentors—for filling workers' skills gaps., AT&T, Walmart, JPMorgan Chase and Accenture have launched programs to help workers acquire new skills as automation, machine learning and other technology replace existing jobs. Amazon apparently would rather pay dearly to coach existing staff—it will shell out $700 million over about six years—than face a dire talent shortage. 

Nikki Bisel is founder of Seafoam Media, a Midwest digital marketing consultancy. Her company launched on-the-job training to address what she calls a "huge gap between what people learn at four-year colleges and what we need them to do on the job."

The cost: Between $30,000 and $50,000 a year for a dozen employees.

"In our industry, the pace of change is just so rapid, and to stay ahead of the curve for our clients, we need workers to be ahead of the curve," she said.

But small and midsize companies typically don't have those kinds of resources. And, because younger workers tend to job hop, even employers that do may be reluctant to sink too much money into training.

"Most job creation is happening at small companies and startups, and they're typically not ready to hire college graduates because they don't know how to train or prepare them," said Roberto Angelo, CEO and co-founder of AfterCollege, a student and graduate career network in San Francisco. "They'd rather hire someone with experience than invest in the entry-level candidate. That's true whether it's health care, entertainment or food service."

Part 4: When colleges and businesses hook up