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Study Finds Students Are Confused About How to Prepare for Their Careers

Check out these steppingstones to success

A young woman sitting on the steps with a laptop.

​Students have a short window of time in which to prepare for the workforce, and they can become confused and overwhelmed by often-conflicting career guidance from employers and educators, according to a new report, The Great Disconnect.

One in 3 people—32 percent of 9,636 participants—said they were "very unclear" on what they needed to do to set themselves up for career success, the report found. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents were college students (63 percent). Others included employed graduates and unemployed graduates. Among the unemployed respondents, 3 percent were high school students. The global survey was fielded across 140 countries.

Students often turn to career centers, online searches, their personal and professional networks, and social media for career guidance. But many are unsure if what they are doing is putting them on the right path, the study found.

Below is advice from the findings, which are based on the survey and additional interviews with students, professors and global employers from the U.S. and U.K. The report is from Forage, an online platform that offers preskilling job simulations.

1. Students should start sooner during college to build experience and credentials.

More than 50 percent of students began thinking about their careers before starting college, but 40 percent said they didn't start looking for ways to make themselves employable until their sophomore year.

Researchers found in talking with employers that students should start exploring different career paths during their first year of college so that they can narrow their career options and research specific companies in their sophomore year.

"By the end of the second year, students should know where they want to go in their career," the report noted.

Educators agreed that students should start working on their future career in their first year of college—building their soft skills, researching companies and performing additional work outside of the classroom to make themselves attractive as job candidates.

2. Students should seek out career advice from employers and mentors by networking, instead of asking faculty or staff members at their schools.

More than half of the respondents (56.4 percent) said they would seek out faculty or staff at their college for career advice. However, college staff "often acknowledge they have either not worked in the private sector, have not been through the internship or graduate recruitment process, or have not done so for many years," the report said.

"As a result, educators either avoid providing advice or try to bring in industry speakers or alumni to fill the information gap. This strategy is unsustainable, however, because it depends heavily on the educator's individual connections."

3. Extracurricular activities matter to employers, especially as they relate to the workplace. 

Employers like to see that students were involved in activities such as bootcamps, hackathons and case competitions; clubs and societies relevant to their career interests; and initiatives such as creating a podcast.

Educators took a wider view, seeing value in students being well-rounded and not limiting themselves to industry-relevant activities.

Only 13.4 percent of students surveyed selected extracurricular activities among the top three most important factors they think make job applications stand out. Only two of the students interviewed for the study "clearly understood what skills they needed to set themselves up for the job application process—as a result they were able to be strategic with what activities they undertook," the report noted.

4. Student attendance at employer events is valued.

Employers view such attendance as a strong indicator of authentic interest in working for the organization. Only 3 percent of students surveyed thought attending such events made them stand out as job candidates.

"They assume the events are generic and that recruiters don't place significant weight on them. Students, therefore, invest less time in them," according to the report.

An example is the Sophomore Class Atlanta Leadership Experience that Incentive Solutions hosted for three days in March for marketing students at Agnes Scott College, a private women's liberal arts school in Decatur, Ga.

Students participated in marketing-related sales operations, communications and campaigns and they could seek out career advice from company leaders and learned about the different roles within the company.

5. Employers recognize the importance of general work experience and that relevant workplace skills can come from anywhere. 

Students are more likely to think direct professional experience such as an internship is most important for getting hired, as opposed to general work experience (39 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively).

"In a competition between a candidate who completed an internship in data analytics versus a candidate who worked in retail, students assume the candidate with the internship will land the data analytics role," the study said.

"However, the reality is that employers may show preference for the candidate with retail experience if they can demonstrate relevant transferable skills."


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