What do employers really want from college grads?

Amy Scott Mar 1, 2013

What do employers really want from college grads?

Amy Scott Mar 1, 2013

You hear it all the time. A college degree is pretty much a must these days in the workforce. But employers often complain that today’s college graduates aren’t cutting it. Marketplace teamed up with The Chronicle of Higher Education to find out what exactly employers are looking for from today’s grads.

In our survey of about 700 employers around the country, nearly a third said colleges are doing a “fair” to “poor” job of producing “successful employees.” Despite persistently high unemployment, more than half of the employers said they had trouble finding qualified candidates for job openings.

So what gives? We decided to put one of these dissatisfied employers in a room with a soon-to-be college graduate, in a sort of mock job interview.

Our jobseeker is Mourya Abbareddy. He’s a 21-year-old senior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond – a computer science and economics double major with a B average. He shows up in a jacket and tie.

David Boyes – no tie – runs a technology consulting firm called Sine Nomine Associates. That’s Latin for “without a name.” The company of about 20 full time employees is based in Ashburn, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. It does everything from data-center design to strategic planning for businesses like IBM and Cisco.

“They’ll ask us how do we take this from an idea to something that they can actually build or do,” Boyes says. He typically hires recent college grads as entry-level analysts. They do a lot of the research to bring those ideas to life.

Boyes – one of the employers in our survey, and Abbareddy – our willing victim – take a seat at the conference table and the grilling begins.

“Is there some way where you’ve been asked to work in a team,” Boyes asks. “To take an abstract idea and make it concrete, and if so, how?”

Abbareddy has a ready example, describing a class assignment to design a computer game with a team of students.

So far, so good. Abbareddy seems to be avoiding one pitfall in the job hunt: not being prepared. Two-thirds of employers in our survey with The Chronicle said grads need work on their interviewing skills.

Boyes gets more specific. “How did you kind of develop the idea for the game?” he asks.

“We had requirements on what we had to have in the game, and then from there we just threw around ideas,” Abbareddy says.

That’s not what Boyes wanted to hear. He was hoping for something a little more…thought out.

“We find that a lot of people, and not just new college grads, people that are coming from a career, aren’t getting that skill set,” Boyes says. “How 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 really critical.”

Boyes sounds like a lot of the employers who responded to our survey. More than half of them said they have trouble finding qualified people for job openings. They said recent grads too often don’t know how to communicate effectively. And they have trouble adapting, problem solving and making decisions – things employers say they should have learned in college.

That’s why everyone Boyes hires goes through a year-long training program. “The company puts probably about a quarter of a million dollars into every single new hire,” Boyes says. “But that’s the kind of value that we get out of it.”

The training covers basics – like how to write an effective business document – and throws in some philosophy and history

“We ask people to read Cato the Elder,” Boyes says. “We ask people to read Suetonius.”

Jobseekers, take note: you better brush up on your on your early Roman history.

“We do that because we ask them to look at the process – the abstract process – of organizing ideas,” Boyes says.

Sounds a lot like an argument for liberal arts education, at a time when more students are being told to study science and technology as a path to a career. Maguire Associates, the firm that conducted the survey, says the findings suggest colleges should break down the “false dichotomy of liberal arts and career development,” saying they’re “intrinsically linked.”

Or, as Boyes puts it: “We don’t need mono-focused people. We need well-rounded people.” And that’s from a tech employer.

For his part, Abbareddy says he’s had a well-rounded education at Virginia Commonwealth. Granted there was no Suetonius in the mix, but he took rhetoric along with courses on data structures and algorithm analysis.

And he did something else that employers really go crazy for. “I did an internship,” Abbareddy says. 

And that brings us to one of the most surprising things we learned from our survey. In industries across the board, employers viewed an internship as the single most important credential for recent grads – more than where you went to school or what you majored in. Even your grades.

“I learned a lot more from that internship than I did in school,” Abbareddy says. “It’s a different kind of learning.”

After a few more questions, things start looking up for Abbareddy. And what began as a mock interview looks like it could turn into a real job.

“You’ve made a pretty good case, in terms of somebody we’d be interested in talking to more,” Boyes tells him.

Outside, I ask Abbareddy how he thinks it went. Is Boyes is asking too much of someone fresh out of school? Did his university let him down? What he says surprises me.

“I think it’s more up to the student than the university,” Abbareddy says. “The school can’t teach you everything.”

Back inside, David Boyes says he wasn’t just being polite. He might take a chance on a job candidate like Abbareddy.

“We would have to make those investments in him,” he says. “Is he worth it? We’d have to see. But on the other hand I think he has a chance, and certainly if he sends me a resume, I would probably look at it.”

Abbareddy says he will. He graduates in the fall.

See how qualified you are….. try our simulator above and read more.

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