The Collegiate Employment Research Institute released findings recently reporting that hiring for new bachelor’s degree recipients will increase by 16 percent in 2014-2015. The Center based its findings on surveying among 5,700 employers.
Commenting in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Institute’s Director, Philip D. Gardner, believes that the brighter outlook is because “the economy is improving, employers are looking ahead, and retirements are starting to trickle out . . . (and) . . . some of these companies are simply growing.”
The Chronicle reports that Mr. Gardener’s sentiments are echoed by anecdotal evidence from career-development officials on campuses across the country. Employers are developing deeper relationships with students and more employers are attending traditional job fairs for new recruits. Further, the trend seems to extend to graduates with liberal arts degrees. It also helps for students to have had practical experience with an internship.
On the surface, the news is good, especially in the waning days of a deep recession and given the uncertainties in global and economic politics. The findings anticipate that college hiring, with some tweaks in methods and approach, might return to pre-recession practices.
But is this conclusion really a superficial assumption, masking the need for broader changes in the way that American colleges and universities prepare graduates for the workforce?
The likely answer is that graduates seeking employment will need a deeper awareness and an arsenal of tools to help market themselves. And to do so colleges and universities must look beyond the improving statistics to link demographic trends, regional employment opportunities, and global employment trending with the “hard” and “soft” academic preparation that leads to the completion of a bachelor’s degree.
Obviously, some of the critics of the Michigan State survey findings will justifiably point to the type of job obtained by the graduate, the “college degree required” requirement for first-time jobs that should not mandate a college degree as a prerequisite, and the dismal employment rates at many for-profit colleges.
Further, those colleges with the best-developed alumni networks will continue to serve their recent graduates best.
But college and university administrators and faculty must ask themselves three important questions.
First, have they linked what they do best – determine the inputs that qualify students for admission – to the outputs that prepare these students for post-graduate employment? Recognizing that a college budget is tied up largely in tuition discounting, debt repayment, labor and capital expenditures, are college administrators providing enough discretionary resources to career and counseling centers to prepare graduates for employment?
And if so, are they linking career counseling seamlessly into the residential learning experience? Is the education strategy a “cradle through career” approach or simply an effort to provide a journey where success is judged by the student’s ability to navigate college life and receive a degree? Is there a link between what families expect – a good education that leads to productive employment – to an alumni base that contributes social, political and economic capital to their alma mater?
Second, has the university provided a general curriculum so closely supportive of the core degree discipline that the college provides the “soft” skills necessary for graduates to thrive? Can graduates write, articulate, apply quantitative methods, use technology and work in collaborative settings by graduation? Would employers rather offer work to technically trained engineers without these soft skills, for example, or seek to develop a workforce from new engineers that did not need to be retrained in basic skills?
And finally, do academic departments prepare students in subject matter, both technically, and for purposes of this discussion – clinically? Is it better, as the Michigan State survey findings suggest, for American colleges and universities to have a robust system of internships, externships, work study and co op arrangements, if practical, to provide experience and training and permit potential employers to see early who might best meet their workforce needs?
Across America there is a huge debate about the qualities of students, types of degrees, and experiences that new graduates bring to the workforce. Some states, notably in the American South, have focused funding on areas of the workforce where they perceive regional shortages or believe that they can grow new industries. It may be that it is less important to worry about whether states support a history or a science degree. What may be critical is that American colleges and universities find a way to communicate that a 21st Century economy needs both philosophers and engineers.
To do so, higher education has some work ahead. It is not enough to hide behind a post-recession recovery in entry-level jobs for college graduates, especially since many of these first jobs may not justify the “rate of return” in the minds of many families. Instead, higher education must work on creating a seamless education of hard and soft skills with the resources to market them to differentiate between the educated and well-educated.
America needs a well-educated workforce.