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Why Hiring Managers' Expectations for New College Graduates May Be Unrealistic

​The employment market for the college Class of 2019 is filled with paradoxes. Employers are hiring at record levels, but their complaints about a skills gap among recent college graduates are widespread. Hiring managers say that many of these new entrants to the workplace simply aren't ready to tackle the duties they will face on Day One. However, many HR professionals and company recruiters complain that the expectations of line managers and their bosses simply aren't realistic, especially in a very tight job market.

"We consistently hear employers talk about the massive skills gap between what new college graduates are equipped to do and what employers need them to do," said Breanne Harris, country manager for Cubiks, a talent management and assessment company based in Chicago. "The problem is that employers keep raising the bar higher and higher. At some point it becomes a barrier to entry."

It's the labor market version of the Goldilocks principle:

Some jobs are too big. A recent survey by TalentWorks found that 61 percent of more than 95,000 full-time jobs for entry-level employees in the U.S. required at least three years or more of experience.

"Employers are loath to hire candidates who haven't already proven they can do the job, due to risk of a bad hire or higher churn," said Ryan Craig, co-founder and managing director of University Ventures, an investment firm focused on the higher-education sector. "They're trying to mitigate the risk by requiring experience, which essentially defeats the purpose of having entry-level positions."

Some jobs are too small. Forty-three percent of college graduates are underemployed in their first job, meaning that the jobs they hold don't require a four-year degree, according to a recent report from Burning Glass Technologies, an analytics software company. This can lead to new-employee disengagement, lower productivity and high turnover among recent hires.

And some jobs are just right. Just as Goldilocks had to go through a process of trial and error to figure out the best fit, both employers and new graduates may need to experiment with a range of options, including enhanced internship opportunities and apprenticeships.

The Internship Advantage

It's unrealistic for employers to expect new college graduates to have at least three years of work experience when they first enter the job market. However, high-quality internships are proving to be an effective way to close that gap. "Hiring an intern is a win-win situation," said Liz Wessel, co-founder and CEO of WayUp, a networking platform for early-career professionals in New York. "At its most basic, a company derives the benefit of an extra set of hands to help out while the intern gets valuable experience, training and contacts for the future."

Internships are also an important way for small and midsize businesses to build talent pipelines and potentially compete for talent with larger, more-prestigious corporations.

In 2018, Emma Hyams graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor's degree in economics. While in college she had four internships with three different tech companies. After her internship with the third company, WayUp, ended, the firm contracted with her to work remotely on special projects.

After she graduated, she was recruited by several employers. However, WayUp was willing to create a job for her as an associate product manager of data tools, since it had seen firsthand her skills and interest in data analytics and product science. Hyams says she is hopeful it will lead to a career path in product marketing.

"It wasn't a hard decision to accept the offer," she said. "Since we had already worked together, it mitigated the risk for both of us."

Attracting the Best and Brightest

"Many small businesses can't flex the recruiting muscle that bigger companies have, but if you're offering intern-geared perks, like hands-on experience, you might be able to snag quite a bit of talent," said Mike Kappel, CEO of Patriot Software, an online accounting and payroll company in Canton, Ohio.

Patriot recruits interns from nearby colleges, and they receive the same work assignments as entry-level employees. Those who stand out often receive job offers, Kappel said.

"Many companies use a haphazard approach to hiring interns that is more expedient than strategic," said Mary Scott, founder of the Scott Resource Group, a research and consulting company in West Hartford, Conn. "Companies that plan to convert interns into full-time employees need to bring the same rigorous criteria to their hiring of interns as they do to hiring new graduates for entry-level positions."

One successful example of that approach is Ally Financial, a Detroit-based financial services company that relies on its internship program to help address talent shortages. Interns have filled jobs requiring specialized skills that many newly graduated finance majors don't have.

Recruiters like those at Ally have spent years forging strategic relationships with local colleges, recruiting interns from the automotive marketing and management program at Northwood University in Midland, Mich., for example, to work on its auto finance and insurance teams. And adding interns from Wayne State University has helped the company advance its diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Improving the Evaluation Process

"One of the biggest mistakes that hiring managers make is to focus too much on GPAs, majors or whether new graduates went to the right universities," said Troy Steece, university and diversity manager in the Dallas office of McAfee, a California-based cybersecurity company. "It's important to clarify what the role really requires." 

When Steece was hiring for research and development roles at PepsiCo, he was allowed to recruit only chemical engineering majors who had high GPAs and were from prestigious universities. That made sense in this case, because the knowledge they acquired through coursework was directly applicable to the job responsibilities. And a high GPA from a notable university was an indicator that they had learned the subject matter well. Conversely, when Steece was hiring for entry-level sales positions, the specific degree was less important than communication and customer service skills. 

"When employers use the wrong hiring criteria, it can lead to poor outcomes," said Brian Weed, CEO of Avenica, a recruiting company that matches new college graduates with career-track entry-level positions. The solution is to focus on a defined set of transferable skills: a healthy mix of soft and hard skills that really matter in the workplace.

"Recruit for competency rather than pedigree or even degree," Weed said. "Transferable skills like leadership, communication, resilience and problem-solving are often far better predictors for future success."

Since few candidates will check every box, employers should prioritize the skills that are essential for each position and then fill in the gaps after the candidates are hired.

"Companies need to consider training and onboarding as part of the recruitment process," Weed said. "Train the right candidate rather than hire the wrong-but-experienced candidate."

Avoid Degree Inflation

More than 6 million middle-skills jobs in the U.S. are at risk of "degree inflation"—the practice of preferring or requiring a college degree for jobs that were traditionally held by middle-skills workers, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the research report Dismissed by Degreesresearchers from Harvard Business School, Accenture and Grads of Life found that degree inflation makes it harder for employers to find affordable talent. While 3 in 5 employers among those surveyed reported difficulty filling middle-skills jobs, 3 in 5 employers also filtered out applicants without a four-year college degree but who are otherwise qualified. Yet degreed workers are more likely to leave for a competitor. By rethinking the four-year degree requirements for middle-skills jobs, employers can open up new talent pipelines, the researchers found.

The researchers recommend to company hiring authorities the following solutions:

  1. Identify which middle-skills occupations are prone to degree inflation within their organizations and industries.
  2. Explore alternative proxies to a college degree. Identify the specific hard and soft skills required for critical middle-skills jobs, and develop in-house or external training programs, apprenticeships and internships to impart those skills.
  3. Invest in strategies that help the company attract and retain workers with the right competencies rather than depending on credentials alone.

White-Collar Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships have been a common way for blue-collar industries to provide on-the-job training for skilled trades, such as automotive technology or carpentry. Now some companies are offering white-collar apprenticeships in financial services, insurance and other growing industries that are struggling to find new college graduates with the requisite skills and training.

Zurich Insurance partnered with Harper College, a community college in the Chicago suburbs, to train more claims adjusters and other workers for its Chicago-area offices. Students are paid to work at the office three days a week, and then the company pays their tuition so they can spend the other two workdays in the classroom. At the end of the two-year program, graduates receive an associate degree in business administration with insurance industry certificates.

Aon's apprenticeship program aims to create a diverse, highly skilled and motivated workforce. It employs 25 students from the City Colleges of Chicago for its two-year program. Student apprentices work 20 to 30 hours per week at the company's Chicago headquarters and attend classes 10 to 15 hours per week through each semester. 

Prior to starting his reinsurance apprenticeship, Ed Richardson worked as a security guard. He was looking for a job with entry-level training and career growth when a friend tipped him off to the Aon program. Last December, Richardson completed his internship, received his associate degree in commercial insurance and is now working as a reinsurance broker for Aon.

Factor in Talent and Potential

"The alleged talent gap isn't about skills. It's about companies' expectations," said Jeff Mazur, executive director of LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization in St. Louis that offers free technical training and job placement help. "Rather than looking for the perfect mix of skills and experience right now, talent-hungry companies should want candidates who want to grow, not candidates who tick 47 different qualification boxes."

Because computer languages and tools change so rapidly in a technologically advanced workplace, specific technical knowledge and skills can easily become obsolete, said Mazur, who encourages tech companies to place a higher value on a candidate's aptitude, motivation and learning agility.

Though sometimes used interchangeably, there is an important distinction between talent and skills, and that distinction can have an impact on recruitment and selection strategies, Harris said. While talent is innate, skills are acquired through education, training and experience. Companies that hire for talent and train for skills can build a highly motivated, energized and productive workforce.

The relationship between performance and potential is similar to the relationship between skills and talent.

"Assessing performance is focused on the present. It will tell you how well a new graduate can perform in the role today," Harris said. "Potential is the ability to be successful in a role that goes beyond a person's current responsibilities. Potential is about what's ahead and how the person will perform in the future."

Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago.