Many newly minted college graduates are filled with anxiety, fearing they won’t find decent jobs despite their knowledge and skills, and that they will never be free of tuition debt. At the same time, executives say they can’t find qualified applicants for a wide range of jobs.
So, this fall, I talked to about a dozen CEOs in a variety of industries, along with more than 135 graduates, to try to get to the bottom of this paradox.
Instead of finding shared interests linking those who need work and those who need workers, I uncovered a serious divide that limits the success of both.
Every CEO I met described recent graduates as lacking the skills and discipline required in today’s workplace. They complained that young employees deemed themselves entitled to promotion before mastering their assigned tasks. All concluded, in effect, “Let them grow up on someone else’s payroll.”
I replied that my interviews with young people showed that many had records of part-time jobs and excellent grades at selective schools that seemed to make them promising candidates. But executives countered that recent graduates had emerged from universities whose weakened requirements didn’t prepare them for the complex jobs that companies must now fill.
Recent graduates say they are equipped to add value to any employer who hires them. An economics graduate from the University of North Carolina, US, told me: “I’m sick of the bashing our generation gets. I had a 3.6 GPA (grade point average) in a demanding major. Everyone in my dorm knew it would be difficult to land a job, so we held study groups where people in different disciplines shared information. We invited alumni to tutor us in skills and office protocol employers value. All I ask is a chance to prove I’m as good as the best of any generation.”
It’s true that companies are actively seeking petroleum engineers, systems designers, supply-chain analysts and other graduates armed with “hard” skills. But those who majored in English, philosophy, history and other liberal arts subjects are far less likely to be offered an interview, much less a job.
At one time, employers recruited liberal arts graduates whose broad education shaped an inquiring mind and the ability to evaluate conflicting points of view. Their education also brought a freshness of vision that saw alternatives to outdated practices. Graduates entered corporate training programmes armed mainly with potential, but soon absorbed business disciplines. Veteran employees seeing that growth didn’t laugh when a trainee suggested a different approach to a chronic problem.
Rotating through departments let young people showcase their abilities; the most promising were selected by managers eager to mentor them. Several CEOs I spoke with, including those most critical of recent graduates, had this type of training. Today, such programmes are more likely to recruit those with immediately applicable skills that can be honed on the job. As one hiring manager told me: “We no longer have the luxury to hire bench strength. If an applicant isn’t ready to step into an open job we don’t hire them.”
But I’ve found many broadly educated employees to be quicker than technical staff members to develop the intuition that’s crucial on a work floor where grey—not black or white—is the dominant colour. Many of the best general managers with whom I work as a consultant entered the workplace with broad education and not with technical degrees. It was their intuition that helped them ascend—their ability to suspect a flaw even when the data appeared correct, to read the mood of customers and employees, and to sense potential in a product others disdained.
Even the most technologically innovative companies benefit from having a balance of employees—most with technical degrees, others with broader education. Valuable products and services emerge from the clash of ideas between analytical professionals and managers whose greatest strength is their intuitiveness.
Can’t someone who can conjugate French verbs, write statistically dense research papers and explicate the poetry of William Blake be trained in computer programming, supply-chain management and other skills valued by hiring managers? An entire generation hopes that CEOs somewhere believe that giving them an opportunity is the right—and the smart—thing to do.