The Marketplace Speaks

“Where innovation comes in is figuring out the right problem to be solved, the right question to ask, and then figuring out a better way to solve the problem.  You can’t just come up with a solution for today’s problem.”

Rick Hassman, Director or Corporate Applications, Pella Corporation

What does the marketplace want from our college graduates?  Are they getting what they need from this fresh crop of entry level workers?  Grab your electronic device and search the web.  The news isn’t good.  Bosses sing a similar tune.  These kids are ill prepared to carry their weight on the team.  In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education American Public Media’s Marketplace survey of over 700 businesses, better than half of the employers polled had real difficulty finding qualified candidates for job openings.  All of this is happening in a period of high unemployment!  So what do these companies want that we aren’t delivering in education?

A survey published in January of 2015 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities interviewed employers and prospective graduates separately.  Each party evaluated graduates separately.  Both were asked to evaluate graduates on a wide range of skills.  The percentages in Table 1 below reflect those who believe graduates are adequately prepared in that particular skill.

Table 1

Proportions saying they/recent college graduates are well prepared in each area

Skill Employers Students
Working with others 37% 64%
Ethical judgment and decision making 30% 62%
Working with numbers/statistics 28% 55%
Oral communication 28% 62%
Written communication 27% 65%
Critical/analytical thinking 26% 66%
Being innovative/creative 25% 57%
Analyzing/solving complex problems 24% 59%
Applying knowledge/skills to real world 23% 59%

The obvious disconnect between employers’ needs and the readiness of college seniors shouts at us.  The bosses aren’t happy with the best we have to offer.  That fact cannot be overlooked.  These are our strongest academic achievers.  We can’t hide behind the crutch of low expectations.  Something is wrong with our teaching. And our college graduates are oblivious to their short-comings!  Nearly two-thirds believe they possess the goods.  “I’m ready for management,” they cry.  We haven’t even given them a clear picture of expectations in the real world.  We hang them out to dry.

David Boyes, president of a small tech company in Virginia said, “We find that a lot of people, and not just new college grads, people that are coming from a career aren’t getting that skills set.  How do you put an idea forward, and how do you support it, how do you build it, how do you put the facts behind it?  All of those things are critical.”  Our students lack experience.  This is an important implication I draw from the surveys and comments.  Lack of experience explains, in part, the ignorance of these prospective workers.  They don’t miss what they never had because those skills have not been demanded of them, not in the classroom, not at home, not in the workplace.  Every skill demanded by these employers can be taught, strengthened, and reinforced in our youth from the moment we get them as little cherubs.  These skills are universal.  Every child has the right to become a reasoned critical thinker.  Do we as educators, parents, and mentors have the tools to teach these skills to our children?  Can we offer real work at real jobs with exceptional demands to our young people?  These skills must be tested early, or  inevitably learned late, or tragically not at all.

We have a choice; do we leave the teaching of thinking to chance?  Is thinking simply caught or can we intentionally, sequentially, and systematically teach it?  Will we assume the responsibility to teach critical thinking skills or do we assume that these young people will learn these skills by association, a consequence of our current instruction?  Our critics have answered the question for us.  We dare not assume anything.  We must change.  Our instruction must address how our students think.  As Tony Wagner in the Global Achievement Gap puts it, “It is not what you know that’s important.  Rather, it is what you do with what you know that is important.”

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