What Employers Wish You’d Learned In College

Note to new grads: Your boss doesn’t care if you can tweet like a pro.

A recent survey shows employers aren’t satisfied with the skills fresh graduates bring to the table. Most employers surveyed said new grads lack “soft skills,” those interpersonal abilities that go beyond mere technical know-how.

The most stark contrast came in the realm of technological and social media skills. Although these landed at the bottom of desired traits, they were the only skill in which business executives believed new college grads met expectations.

The survey of 500 elite business decision-makers nationwide was commissioned by design company Woods Bagot and conducted by research firm Global Strategy Group. Respondents were asked to evaluate the quality of their work force, especially those hired out of college with no prior work experience. Overwhelmingly, business executives said that in general, graduates excel in technology but are weak in areas like solving problems and communicating.

Asked what skills they most desired, employers ranked abilities such as problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking and written communication skills at the top of this list. Yet when asked about new grads’ actual abilities, employers generally felt they failed to meet expectations in these areas.

Soft skills can have big impact on bottom line

The shortfall in skills is not a problem among just a few students. Sixty percent of all respondents said that fewer than half of graduates have the skills they need to succeed.

At civil engineering firm George, Miles & Buhr in Salisbury, Md., HR Director Amanda Pollack is feeling the pinch.

“A big part of what we do as engineers is write reports and specifications for our plans, and we find that writing isn’t something that is really taught to engineers,” she said. Her novice employees likewise have trouble presenting their ideas outside the office.

“There is a challenge when people go out and give presentations. Public speaking isn’t talked about or highlighted at school,” Pollack said.

When soft skills are lacking, there’s a direct effect on the bottom line. Shortfalls in these areas make people less productive and less able to achieve specific ends. That’s why employers put such a premium on these capabilities.

“Most importantly, employers are looking for teamwork,” said Brian Tabinga, a program manager with recruiting firm Bradley-Morris.

Tabinga works primarily with military members transitioning to the civilian workforce, and he sees similarities with newly minted college grads. Just as military personnel need to work together to accomplish their mission, so do business professionals.

“In most corporations there are multiple components needed to accomplish a mission or a job. It’s not just dependant on one person. So you have to be able to grasp the fact that your contribution is still part of a greater whole,” Tabinga said.

As the Woods Bagot survey shows, critical thinking also rates high among desirable traits.

“Critical thinking means being able to look at a problem from multiple angles. A lot of times you are trained to go from A to B in a straight line, and that’s not always what’s needed. Critical thinking means taking a step back to look at multiple solutions,” Tabinga said.

The economic downturn has added to the problem. At a time when businesses have had to cut back their workforces, employers don’t want new hires who have to be taught the basics.

“With a smaller staff and folks having to do more, we’ve had companies where the boss just doesn’t have the time to train this person, because they are busy filling in for someone else who isn’t there anymore,” Tabinga said.

How you can improve your skills — even after graduation

For new graduates looking to stand out in the workplace, there are ways to get up to speed on these skills. As an HR professional, Pollack offers these ideas:

  1. Get a mentor, someone in the office or outside work who can spot your shortfalls and coach you to improve them.
  2. Listen openly to feedback from your supervisor.
  3. Join young professional groups like The United States Junior Chamber (Jaycees), where peers get together to improve their career skills.

Some propose a more unorthodox approach. At Cutco Cutlery, for instance, college students sell knives through in-home personal demonstrations — good old-fashioned door-to-door work. It’s tough on the shoe leather, but they learn how to communicate, make presentations and manage their time: All skills employers want to see.

“Graduating with a solid GPA is no longer enough to win that much-coveted first job after college,” said Sarah Baker Andrus, director of academic programs for Vector Marketing, the sales division for Cutco Cutlery.

You need the grades, sure, but you also need the skills that go beyond textbook learning.

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