THE BLOG
06/14/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

Solutions for the Many Gaps Awaiting New College Graduates

For many, the summer season means vacation. For young people graduating this year, their vacation might be longer than they'd like.

That's because the job market for the average college graduate does not look good. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1,791,000 students at the bachelor's degree level will graduate as the college Class of 2013. Unfortunately, only 16% of those graduating seniors say they have a job waiting for them, according to a recent poll by Accenture. While that number is small, it's dramatically smaller than the previous year, considering 39% of 2012 graduating seniors said they had a job lined up, and 68% report that they are now working full time.

You might blame these numbers on our favorite culprit - the lagging economy - and you would be partially correct. But, in fact, inadequate education is perhaps a stronger reason for low placement rates for college grads. Recruitment firm Adecco conducted a recent survey, which showed 66% of hiring managers believe new college graduates are not prepared for the workforce after leaving college. Further, 58% are not planning to hire entry-level graduates at all.

While these numbers are clearly discouraging, a solution exists that will begin reversing these troubling trends.

There is a growing "skills gap" in America that, if left unchecked, threatens the stability of the U.S. workforce, the productivity of industry in this country, and the reputation of U.S. colleges and universities. The skills gap refers to the disparity between the skills possessed by average potential workers and the skills required by employers. Traditionally, it has been the role of higher education to fill this gap by preparing young people to enter the workforce. But in recent years, many college graduates have unexpectedly found themselves unemployed, while college officials have struggled to explain why.

Employers say the problem is not a lack of jobs, but a lack of workers with the advanced skills necessary for the jobs that are available. Unprecedented advancements in workplace technology are partially to blame, but higher education also bears some responsibility for this national dilemma. Colleges have simply not done enough to keep up with the rapidly changing needs of industry. Entry-level job skills have changed but traditional college teaching methods and curriculum have not.

To regain the status and trust that higher education institutions once enjoyed, they must seriously reexamine their methods and outcomes. From the sobering trends that we all see in the U.S. labor force, there are many hard lessons higher education must learn:

Begin paying more attention to job placement rates of graduates
While most of the focus in higher education has been on improving retention and graduation rates, there has been far too little emphasis placed on the ability of students to find jobs after graduation. Lawmakers have called for more "accountability" from colleges across the country, and educators have responded by signing pacts to increase the overall percentage of completers at their institutions. But the problem is this--if traditional college degrees are not leading to actual jobs, and we are simply producing more graduates with these same degrees, then we are just contributing to the growing problem in the U.S. workforce of too many people being over-educated and underemployed.

Begin working closely and directly with employers
Most colleges proudly promote that their "primary customer is the student." This may sound great in a college recruitment brochure, but if students are not able to find meaningful employment with their diplomas, they are left to wonder about the kind of customer service they actually received. Colleges would be wise to listen more carefully to the needs of employers and then make changes within their curriculum accordingly. Private sector businesses and industries should be seen as valuable partners and collaborative allies in the educational process, not just as potential donors.

Begin directing students into fields of applied technology
The conventional advice to young people has been to go to college and get a degree in anything--"just having a college degree will open doors for you." Well, the rules have changed for first-time job seekers, and this kind of outdated academic advisement is not only ill-informed, it is irresponsible. Not all college degrees are created equal. Some are much more sought after by employers and students deserve to know this. Certain fields are saturated, yet colleges continue to produce graduates in these areas by the tens of thousands every year. Today's students must make smarter decisions about college. School officials should provide relevant workforce data about various majors and inform students about the differences between theoretical and applied instruction. Colleges should offer more options with applied, hands-on teaching methods in the fields of advanced and emerging technology.

Institutions of higher education in the U.S. are at a crossroads. With regard to the skills gap, they can choose to remain unchanged and be seen increasingly as part of the problem, or with a few fundamental modifications, they can reinvent themselves and be celebrated as part of the solution.

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