11/16/2012 06:41 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Closing the Skills Match Gap: Connecting College Students and Employers When it Matters Most

In the United States, the top 50 companies alone spend over $600 million dollars on college recruiting. Yet one out of every two recent graduates is unemployed or underemployed, according to the Associated Press.

If major corporations are devoting hundreds of millions to finding the best young talent available -- and virtually every recent graduate is looking for work -- why are there three million unfilled positions according to the Labor Department?

In the past three years I've heard from thousands of college students and dozens of employers about what I call the skills match gap -- students who either aren't obtaining, or have trouble demonstrating, the skills that employers want.

Feedback from students is remarkably consistent. First, they don't feel like they have enough information about the impact of their academic choices on their employment prospects. And even when they achieve the right skills and credentials, they don't have an effective way to show what they are capable of. As one student told me, "I literally put my resume into a box to apply for a job." The metaphor couldn't be clearer.

Employers reflect a mirror image of the same concerns. Their frustrations begin with the difficulty involved with influencing students' academic decisions. In many cases it is no longer a matter of looking for students with a certain degree or GPA. Employers need the ability to communicate the courses, experiences, and skills they are looking for in successful candidates. With effective communication, employers can help grow the pie of students with the right mix of education and experience.

There are two major factors we need to address to close this gap and bring students and young professionals closer together with employers.

The first factor is empowering students to make informed decisions about their degree and courses they take. It takes 120 credits to graduate with a Bachelor's Degree, yet the national average is 137 credits. Community college students are taking 80 credits for Associates Degrees that require an average of 60 credits. Students are wasting time and money. Yet they are still saying, "I wish I knew that when I was in school," when confronted with the skills and experiences necessary to qualify for a job.

College students need more data, and thanks to Federal dollars, a few states -- including Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas -- have begun to marry earnings data with college transcripts. It's a great start, but we will need to go beyond asking students to access tables of data on a government portal. What will truly impact the employment gap is when employers get more involved in academic planning. They need to educate one-, two- and four-year students on the soft and hard skills they need for getting a job before it is too late.

The second major improvement for closing the skills match gap is enabling students to tell their story in meaningful ways. The obvious conclusion is that won't happen by using a word processor, filling out a form or creating a resume. It requires rich-media technology that allows a generation of employees -- who are light on work experience but heavy on life experience and academic achievements -- to distinguish their talents.

In a nutshell, someone recently asked me what are the three most important characteristics that determine an employee's success in my organizations. My response was attitude, tenacity and talent. Their follow-up: show me where you find those on a resume.

Recruiters need to see potential new hires in a more accurate light; if they can see the soft skills right along side the hard, they can make more informed decisions. A transcript and resume alone will never show a student's attitude, creativity or work habits, yet these traits are essential for success.

Higher education is about more than getting a job. The investments that individual students -- and society overall -- make in higher education have important civic and academic benefits. But we can do a better job of making sure more students are achieving better career benefits as well.

If we're ever going to move the needle in the jobs crisis we need to close the skills match gap in a way that is scalable and sustainable, and we must provide a better return on education for everyone.

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