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Wanted: Better Employees

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Employer unhappiness with college graduates is nothing new. As the president of the University of Washington, Michael K. Young, told me recently, "employers have never been happy with the graduates colleges are producing."

Still, with three million unfilled jobs in a bad economy, it stands to reason that some employers are having difficulty finding the right workers.

In the past few months, at conferences, at dinners, and on airplanes, I've had the chance to sit next to a handful of recruiters who work for companies large and small, from Zappos to United Technologies. So I asked these recruiters if colleges were indeed graduating unprepared students.

Their answers were a lot more nuanced than a simple yes or no. They had plenty of blame to spread around, including at their own corporations, which have largely pared back training and mentoring programs in the name of saving money in recent years.

Still, a few common themes emerged from the conversations:

Some students are not college material even with a college degree. Few employers seem to be worried about the top graduates of almost any college or any of the graduates of the top colleges in the United States. But all of the recruiters told me they were surprised by the number of applicants they encounter who clearly were not ready to go to college in the first place, yet possess a degree.

"The focus on access and completion has come at a real cost," one recruiter told me (he didn't want his company identified because he's not allowed to speak on its behalf). "We're encouraging students to go to college who should be considering other options, and then we're pushing them through once there."

Writing, writing, writing. We keep throwing around the word "skills," but it seems the one skill that almost every job requires is the ability to write well, and too many graduates are lacking in that area. That's where many of the recruiters were quick to let colleges off the hook, for the most part. Students are supposed to learn to write in elementary and secondary school. They're not forgetting how to write in college. It's clear they're not learning basic grammar, usage, and style in K-12.

Work ethic. Again, many of the recruiters refused to paint today's college student with the broad brush of laziness. Many students, they said, come armed with impressive credentials and are hard workers. But many others were allowed to skate by in college. The recruiters complained about professors who clearly gave grades that were not deserved, allowed assignments to be skipped, and simply didn't demand much from their students. The lack of academic rigor might please students and their parents while in college, but it's doing a disservice to students when they graduate and have similar expectations in the workplace.

Expectations. Speaking of expectations, many of today's younger workers want everything now and have a sense of entitlement. "They're often unprepared for the first test on the job, the interview. They expect to just get the job," one recruiter told me. Several recruiters blamed that attitude on a generation of parents obsessed with their kids' happiness, which has made them unhappy and impatient in adulthood.

As you can see, literally everyone is to blame for this supposed lack of prepared graduates in the workplace. So if we think this is a problem, everyone, it seems, must play a part in fixing it, including colleges.

Perhaps we should be encouraging more students to hold off on going directly to college from high school, or have them consider alternatives to a college degree. Colleges and professors need to uphold their standards and encourage more rigor in the classroom, knowing the short-term consequences might be unhappy students but the long-term benefits will be better-prepared graduates.

The fixes for K-12 and parents are more difficult, but the bottom line is that the debate over what employers want in today's college graduates is about more than just job training vs. a broad education.