A New Gallup Survey Says Colleges and Employers Disagree About How Workforce-Ready Graduates Are -- Who's Right?

02/27/2014 04:04 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

I just nearly fell out of my chair.

A newly released Gallup poll, sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, revealed that 14 percent of Americans -- and only 11 percent of business leaders -- strongly agree that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. That's in contrast to another recent survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed in conjunction with Gallup, indicating that 96 percent of academic officers believe that they're effectively preparing students for success in the workplace.

The skills gap that exists between our workers and the work that needs to be done is not news. I've been observing and writing about it for decades. But what I didn't realize was how expansive the gap is between how academia and business each view the workforce-readiness of college graduates.

Could this rift in perception itself be a main cause of our skills gap?

I think yes.

It used to be that a solid liberal arts education was all that was required for a foothold in the workforce. With most any liberal arts degree, the world was your oyster. But today's price of admission into the workforce is different.

Today's employers are expecting practical skills, not just theory -- proof of an ability to learn, but also a proven ability to execute. And they aren't getting it. Every day they see well-screened, seemingly well-qualified graduates filter through their doors -- without the basic skills sets expected.

In the Gallup/Lumina poll, 79 percent of business leaders report that a job candidate's applied skills in the field are very important. And as an exclusive sneak peek, I'll share that College for America commissioned a soon-to-be-released survey revealing that difficulty in finding such well-qualified applicants is a key challenge for 85 percent of HR and director-level respondents.

And this challenge is not found in just select markets. We hear a lot about the gap with manufacturers, but skills are missing across all industries. I've had conversation after conversation with leaders in manufacturing, healthcare, insurance, government, retail and other industries, and the song remains the same. The skills sets that matter across all of these sectors are too often missing from their entry level employees, whether they have degrees or not. These include hard skills -- such as producing an extended piece of writing or interpreting information contained in graphs and charts -- and soft skills -- such as negotiating with others to settle conflicts and disputes.

So how do we begin to solve the problem? And whose problem is it really? Is it the sole burden of higher education to rethink how and why it educates its student body, or the challenge of each employer to reset its expectations and teach employees beyond the scope of a traditional degree?

The answer? Neither party is fully responsible.

It takes a consortium of effort -- from educators, business leaders, workforce development professionals, economic developers and the students themselves -- to build a competent workforce.

The good news is, per the Gallup/Lumina poll, that a grand majority of business leaders (88 percent) would like greater levels of collaboration with higher education institutions. This collaboration is key to answering the question of how we begin to solve the problem.

Higher education institutions need to actively work with industry leaders and business partners to understand the skills gaps. Together they can then shape and continually tune curricula to meet both accreditation requirements and business needs. This type of collaboration will lead to workforce-relevant academic programs and help close the skills gap.

It is important to put learning in the context of work as much as possible. We must teach and hone skills through learning activities that mimic real-world scenarios rather than testing students on abstract principles. This is more than internships and externships; academic projects can and should be more often set in industry settings that graduates are likely to encounter in their career.

Relevant education in context can't happen unless business leaders, academic leaders and policy-makers work together to make it so. That's our challenge, and these surveys are our wake up call.