Are Colleges to Blame?

09/11/2013 06:42 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2013

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and an Ernst and Young report I just picked up via CNBC both say the same thing. Employers are not happy with their new hires among young people. The issues range from the inability to communicate well, manage multiple priorities and problem-solve to being self-serving and seeking salaries above what they are worth. The Chronicle also noted that nearly 80 percent of employers do not care about majors. They just want smart, hard-working students with workplace skills that are transferable across disciplines.

Workplaces are messy. The problems of the day will cross many boundaries and involve varied skills from moment to moment. It may be an irate customer or a spreadsheet with errors. It may be a dysfunctional team or a cranky boss. One hardly ever is doing just one task all day and certainly never needing only one skill. Someone whose job is, for example, to engage a specific skill like taking blood has to also know how to handle the fearful patient and record data accurately.

We have been assuming that young people who have grown up with technology will be tech savvy at work. But talking recently to an entrepreneur friend who has run very large firms, she expressed amazement that while they can use some technology for social media purposes they don't often understand it nor are they able to use the technology ranging from organizing data files to Excel. I have heard employers like her complain of lateness, inability to set priorities, and being so absorbed in their own technological bubbles that they drop workplace balls.

They do not know how to dress professionally or understand that hierarchies often demand deference. This says something about courtesy. Living online avoids human interaction and so the skills that make for civil society are not necessarily developed. There is a certain self absorption that is being reported. Even the vocabulary of technology reflects this trend with the term "selfies" to refer to photos taken and posted of one's self. When students think sexting is a good idea and online bullying is just a fact of life we have a problem in the potential for equally dysfunctional behavior in the workplace. And given that firms depend on human collaboration that is not useful.

Meanwhile colleges are supposed to be where students are prepared for the workplace. I would suggest that is true -- to a point. Colleges for many, many decades have been where those in leadership roles particularly have acquired the smarts that they applied to diverse workplace situations and across industries. Given our general trajectory of economic growth with cyclical dips and fairly steady innovation we must have been doing some things well.

However, was it ever the role of colleges to teach how to be polite, live by the golden rule, dress properly, speak with courtesy to elders or others in authority? My parents and grandparents did that. Did they ever. Presumably most of us of my (boomer) generation, landed on campus with those skills. That is not to say we could not be knuckleheads (or deadheads or whatever.) A certain degree of idiocy goes with youth. But often countercultural behavior was conscious rebellion. We knew what we were doing was counter to current codes of behavior. During the 60s that actually played out in "peace and love" which was pretty good for fostering human interaction and sensibility.

What employers report seems to me to reflect a certain degree of not caring. Then I have to ask the question of where are parents, K-12 education and religious or community institutions where social behavior has traditionally been taught. Just as so much more is being expected of the K-12 teacher beyond the purely academic and pedagogical we seem to expect college to be a place where Henry Higgins reigns transforming the uncivil and unwashed into job ready royalty.

Even among college students whom I love and work with, I often see a lack of knowledge of how to dress, how to follow-up on an offer of support, how to take initiative, or how to frame even an email in proper English with appropriate pleases and thank yous.

Learning how to be a team member and how to win or lose with grace should happen on the playing field where some people actually win or lose with grace without the rude and/or over-hovering parent setting a bad example. Communication with adults should be happening at the dinner table with actual conversation rather than everyone tuned into their own technological hub. Being paid for a job well done should happen when the sidewalk gets shoveled properly. It is wrong that when I get on a bus with my cane as my new hip heals, older women will give me a seat before a young person. These are all situations that are enacted in the workplace in different contexts. College is not set up to deliver on these skills. In fact it needs students to come in with them and then college can help refine and direct them. There are new firms, like The Table Group, that are emerging to fill the gap and teach people how to behave with each other at work.

Colleges are not without faults for sure. They need to do a much better job of helping, especially first generation students, understand the translation of academic skills to workplace skills. They need to provide more opportunities for workplace simulation such as experiential and community based courses. They need to be sure there is exposure to alumni who can share what is really expected out there in the "real world". They perhaps need to set some standards themselves in terms of dress codes (no halters in class please.) They can set rules for the appropriate times and places to engage technology -- like no texting in class. But they should not be held solely accountable for the flaws employers find in college graduates. We all bear that burden.

Visit to learn more about Marcia Cantarella and her new book I Can Finish College.