A new survey of employers shows that broader may be better when it comes to higher learning. Despite students’ increasing interest in a college education that prepares them for a specific career, employers and the nature of the job market both appear to be demanding students with a wide knowledge base and flexible skills.
The survey, commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, an organization that advocates liberal arts education, was published yesterday. It focused both on what employers would like to see in new hires and on how well they think colleges are able to prepare students for the workforce. Only one in four of the 302 employers surveyed felt that two-year and four-year colleges are currently doing a good job of preparing students for the challenges of the global economy. One in five believe that significant changes are needed in how colleges prepare students for the workforce and most wanted to see at least some changes made.
Many employers saw college education as increasingly important for job applicants: 28 percent said they would place more emphasis on hiring people with at least a bachelor’s degree in upcoming candidate searches. Nearly the same proportion, 25 percent, said they would be placing less emphasis on hiring people with no degree. The greatest increase in interest in candidates with a bachelor’s degree or higher comes from the largest employers—those with 500 or more employees. They reported 43% more emphasis on hiring candidates with a four-year degree.
Employers reported that degree attainment isn’t the only area in which their expectations for employees have increased. The vast majority of employers agreed with the following four statements about their company:
- Our company is asking employees to take on more responsibilities and to use a broader set of skills than in the past (91%)
- Employees are expected to work harder to coordinate with other departments than in the past (90%)
- The challenges employees face within our company are more complex today than they were in the past (88%)
- To succeed in our company, employees need higher levels of learning and knowledge today than they did in the past (88%)
To meet these increased expectations, employers overwhelmingly felt it would be helpful for students to pursue opportunities that are becoming common features of a liberal arts education, such as a capstone project that demonstrates their depth of knowledge and analytical skills (84%), an internship or community-based field project (81%), coursework that develops research skills (81%). They also expressed support for more education to build research skills, cultural awareness (both locally and globally), ethical thinking, and understanding of large challenges. An accompanying position paper from the AAC&U expanded on how colleges could foster these kinds of learning and thinking.
However, students do not have to wait for sweeping reforms in college education to take advantage of opportunities that will benefit them in the hiring process. Indeed, they might not have time. Of the employers surveyed, 38% expect to hire more people within the next year, and 54% plan to keep levels of employment steady, a sunnier outlook than was presented in another recent survey of employers. As the country comes out of the recession, recent college grads will be increasingly in demand, but they may also be in greater supply as many schools are currently experiencing record enrollment.
Luckily, at many colleges and universities you can find classes, internships, and other experiences now that will help prepare you for the workplace. If you’re a high school student working on your college search, focus on schools that emphasize research and offer numerous opportunities for internships and senior thesis projects. If you’re currently enrolled, take a variety of courses, especially ones that develop research and analytical skills, and see if your school currently offers internship experiences or opportunities for substantial research projects. By demonstrating through your experience and coursework that you’re both skilled in your subject area and able to learn and adapt, you may have an edge over your competition.
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