03/22/2013 04:11 pm ET Updated May 22, 2013

Giving Employers Their Cake and Letting Them Eat It, Too


An article about exactly what employers are looking for in today's college grads should be front-page news, given that the Pew Research Center reports that 54 percent of them are out of work. With little fanfare and not much attention, the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace Money recently released a survey of 700 employers across the country who hire new college graduates. The results: a four-year degree is nice, but experience counts for more.

According to the survey, most employers -- even those in industries like manufacturing -- want college graduates with four-year degrees and workplace experience, either through an internship or on the job training. This is a chicken and egg problem: which comes first, the degree or job experience?

As someone who has hired a few people, I can relate. I want experienced employees too, and I'm an educator. Showing up ready to work is more important than showing up able to work. Most jobs are like bicycle riding, you don't really know about them until you do them. I've met lots of folks who have trained for many, many years and then found out that once the job becomes full time, it isn't as much fun. Agriculture is like this, talking about wrestling pigs, goats, cows, weeds etc. in the hot/summer, cold/winter, is way more fun than actually doing it.

Where I teach, Vermont Technical College, our students don't have this particular problem. At VTC, the work experience is fully integrated with degree coursework, whether in agriculture, nursing, engineering, or sustainable practices. Employers respond -- our placement rate is stellar.

Colleges can -- and should -- do more to prepare students for "the real world." We can chop up our lessons a bit and create short intense courses that work well with full time jobs. We can create partnerships with employers that offer student programs that are "half work, half school."

Businesses could transfer money from "salary" to "scholarship," simultaneously training their new workforce and supporting their community. For instance, right now, 16 of my students trade 15 hours of work per week in exchange for housing costs. A business that compensates its employees with educational support will have significant impact on the education and experience level of its future workforce. Students would naturally focus on educational topics that are important to their current workplace and graduate with significant gratitude for their employer. This educational strategy has worked very well at our military academies. Let's expand this philosophy into under served fields.