College grads are unprepared for the workforce

“We previously thought that university brands were all you needed to get the job that you wanted. Now people understand that they would rather prioritize work exposure at a top company over a top university degree,” says Megan O’Connor, Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Kaplan. We discuss why college grads are unprepared for today’s workforce, what pertinent skills they are missing, and how a university’s brand name traps us into believing we’re set for life. Megan shares how Boost, her new 10-week online program starting September 14, bridges this gap of being educated but unskilled.

Thanks so much for joining us, Megan! Can you tell us how your experience has led to this idea of a gap between college and work readiness?

My experience while working at Kaplan has been to keep a pulse on what is happening with student sentiment around college and work readiness. What we were finding, even before the pandemic, is that students were reporting at increasing numbers that college was not preparing them for the workforce. Because of that, they were starting to wonder, “How do I get the tangible skills I need for my first job if my four-year traditional university isn’t where I’m going to receive them?”

According to your research, how do employers tend to view fresh college grads?

We were also doing a lot of research that found that employers felt similar sentiment. They were feeling that the entry-level employees that they were hiring didn’t have the day one skills they needed to be prepared for their first job. So when you think about it and you take a step back, the purpose of doing well on the SATs or ACT, the purpose of getting into college, and the purpose of going to a four-year track of higher ed is to get you on your career path. But there seems to be some piece that was disconnected. There was something about college that wasn’t preparing students for the workforce.

In what ways might the pandemic affect students’ unpreparedness for the workforce?

Of course, we hit one of the most unique times I think we’ll ever possibly imagine, which is this pandemic. Students started to look at higher ed much more critically, meaning that if they were going to go to school while their families were likely financially impacted, they really had to make sure that the ROI of their university experience was high. That it was going to get them the careers that they wanted. In addition to that, if you’re going to be having a sub-optimal learning experience by doing it as remote learning, it felt hard to justify the tuition price knowing that it wasn’t even going to be the best learning environment you could possibly have.

This is an important moment for us to insert into a student’s life the ability for them to reflect on: “What might I want to be when I grow up? What professional skills are important for me to learn? What tangible skills about career exposure should I be picking up? How do I set up my higher ed experience to unlock career paths I might be interested in pursuing?” So that’s what we’re here to do: help families and students get the most out of their continuing education after high school.

What skills are recent grads missing?

We’re seeing that the skills that students need to leave college and then be successful in the workforce fall into two buckets. One of them is professional skills, and these are some of the soft skills that maybe don’t get emphasized as much but that we both know in a workplace are extraordinarily important. A student who may have studied really hard to become an engineer might have the great tangible coding skills, but didn’t realize that ability to work in teams, critical thinking, decision-making: those are also components of their job and skills they need to have in order to be successful.

And then on the inverse side, I think the other thing to note is jobs are changing so much, so it’s hard to study to be just one specific type of job. Maybe in law, medicine, or finance, it’s a little bit more straightforward, but truly, the way that you learn is by seeing other people who have that job. That’s how you learn, “What are the skills I need? How could I succeed in a role like this?”

The other piece of the Boost program is around career exposure. That way, students can see real live practitioners, people who have these jobs today, working in those jobs. It’s not an internship, it’s not doing work for a company. It’s just understanding what that work looks like through the lens of these real-world employees and then doing case studies and problem-solving exercises so they can practice: “What might it be like if I had this role?”

If colleges aren’t preparing students for the workforce, what do you think is the purpose of higher ed?

It’s a great question. Colleges are responsible for a lot. Colleges are responsible for students having a safe landing once they leave their family’s home, often for the first time. Colleges are responsible for helping individuals create a network that they can use professionally in the future. There’s also a lot of interpersonal growth that happens for a student while they’re at college. All those things are still true: Creating community, creating bonds, creating growth holistically is still something that happens at the university level.

The problem is, in this pandemic world that we’re in, it obviously makes it much harder for any of those things to be achieved. Aside from that, college is supposed to be your building block to unlocking your career and setting you up for success in your future. I think what we’re going to see is that students choose more of a hybrid approach to their higher ed experience, meaning they might take a couple credit-bearing classes online; they might take a bootcamp to supplement some tangible skills. I think there are going to be multiple things that make up one student’s overall higher ed experience versus just a very straightforward four years within one university.

What about the status quo is preventing our college students from learning these tangible skills before graduating?

We have basically valued getting into a top university as the end-all be-all in our society. We previously thought that university brands were all you needed to get the job that you wanted. Now people understand that they would rather prioritize work exposure at a top company over a top university degree. I can be quite honest; from all the people that I’ve hired over the multiple organizations that I’ve run, I can’t really tell you if I remember where any of them went to college, but I can tell you what they were good at and why they were hired for their job and what skills they had and what they were proficient in. And so I think that for too long, we’ve just idolized the idea of getting into a university and assuming that was all you had to do to be successful, and now we’re finally realizing that that’s not all you need in order to enter the workforce.

Many of our readers are parents of college-bound students. Have you seen parents do anything successfully to help their kids become not just college ready, but career ready?

I feel so much for both counselors/advisors and parents right now, because you’ve been training and telling your child through all of their lives: “You’ve just got to do good in high school. You’ve just got to do well on these tests, and then you’re going to get into college, and then it’s going to be amazing.” And then all of that got flipped on its head overnight.

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