Does college prepare today’s young people for the real world of employment? According to a 2013 Chegg study, the answer is a definitive no. Fewer than two in five hiring managers said that recent grads are prepared for a job in their field of study.
Based on my work with entry-level employers across a wide range of industries, I would agree with this finding. There’s a lot of frustration with today’s college graduates’ preparedness compared those 10 or even five years ago.
What Has Changed?
I believe this lack of preparedness stems from a few different issues:
First, today’s grads are members of the Millennial generation, which means many of their parents were actively involved in their lives from childhood through to college. They were often celebrated for “participation” and rarely experienced failure or struggle at home. Even at school, there was often more of an emphasis on building self-esteem and creativity than on developing discipline and hard skills.
Second, colleges and universities have changed over the years to serve the desires of both Baby Boomer parents and Millennial kids. According to U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by the Chicago Tribune in 2008, there has been an 85 percent rise in the number of double and triple majors over the last decade. And in 2010 The Wall Street Journal reported on College Board data that show more than 900 four-year colleges and universities allow students to design their own majors. These are not inherently bad trends, but they often allow, for example, a student who doesn’t like writing to avoid writing classes altogether.
Third, the world is changing so fast that it’s unclear whether any higher education program can realistically keep up with the skillsets required in today’s graduates. In many ways, it’s up to students to seek out skill- and experience-building opportunities outside the classroom through internships, extra curriculars and part-time jobs.
5 Skills Millennials Must Master
So, what exactly do employers wish more grads knew? According to the Chegg study, hiring managers felt that grads were most lacking in organization, leadership, personal finance skills and “street smarts.” Let’s explore these four skills, and one more I consider crucial:
This is the topic I absolutely must add to any list of what employers wish Millennials learned in college. According to a 2013 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 80 percent of employers said colleges should focus more on written and oral communication. No matter what the industry or job function you’re in, you will need to talk to people and send emails.
Mostly due to the rise in email, texting, instant messaging and other electronic communications, today’s grads are much more casual, unfocused and imprecise in their writing and speaking. This doesn’t mean they’re dumb or lazy; it usually means they haven’t been taught how to communicate in a professional way.
While it irritates many employers to have to offer basic writing classes to new hires, this is a simple and painless solution to the problem of Millennials’ weak writing and speaking skills. (On the positive side, employers rarely have to offer Millennials classes on basic technology and software programs.) I also recommend Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty.
When it comes to organization skills, employers want Millennials to be able to manage their time so they get all their work done on a daily and weekly basis. This includes managing and prioritizing multiple assignments, and organizing and analyzing large amounts of data — such as client preferences, sales results or vendor bids — in a cohesive way.
If you are — or know — a Millennial struggling with this, one of my favorite books on the topic is Getting Things Done by David Allen.
I believe this topic is crucial and so under-taught for Millennials that I wrote a new book entirely about it. At its core, being a leader is about raising your hand and taking responsibility. Saying, “This needs to get done and I’ll make sure we do it.”
You don’t need to be in a management role to be a leader, nor do you necessarily need to take a class on the topic. But employers absolutely want young employees who raise their hands to take on challenging projects, go above and beyond expectations and immediately step forward and admit if they’ve made a mistake. In other words, employers want Millennials who are mature adults.
4. Personal Finance
This one may feel like a bit of a curve ball, but it’s true. While I don’t agree with this practice, some employers check prospective employees’ credit scores before making a job offer. The reason is some employers believe personal finances are a way to gauge how responsible people are.
Whether this is fair or not, many college grads do tell me they wish they had learned more about personal finance in college. It can be daunting to face a salary negotiation, employee benefits choice, stock option plan or apartment lease agreement without such skills. My favorite books on the subject include Generation Earn by Kimberly Palmer, On My Own Two Feet by Manisha Thakor and Sharon Kedar, and I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi.
5. “Street Smarts”
Voltaire once said, “common sense is not so common,” and I see this maxim played out every day in the workplace. While employers believe it’s rude to wear ear buds in the office, Millennials are using them to focus and be more productive. While employers are horrified when a Millennial sends an email of ideas directly to the CEO, that same Millennial grew up in a world in which everyone on the planet — including the president of the United States — is accessible through social media. Common sense is most definitely not common, especially in today’s multigenerational workplace.
What employers really want is for Millennials to learn the professional etiquette of their particular environment. If you’re reading this as a Millennial, I would encourage you to observe the way people communicate, what they wear, how often they check their phones in a meeting, etc.
If you are reading this as an employer, I suggest you make the “unspoken” rules of your workplace more accessible. For example, host professional etiquette training sessions or provide Millennials with mentors who can give them insider knowledge and answer their questions about “they way things are done around here.” It would be impossible for college to teach the ins and outs of every organization.
What other skills would you add to this list? Please share in the comments!
Employers, if you’re trying to better understand the Millennials who work for you and are applying to your organization, read my new white paper: