April 24, 2018

What Employers Want from College Grads | From the Bell Tower

Academic librarians believe they have something to contribute to the development of lifelong learners. There’s more to being a lifelong learner than having the skills for workplace success, but listening to what employers are looking for could provide guidance.

At a recent conference for medical and health sciences librarians, the conversation that broke out was hardly what I expected it to be. Delivering the kickoff speech, I addressed current higher education challenges with the potential either to pose problems or new possibilities for librarians, depending on how we approach the situation. In referring back to observed trends, for example, massive online education, some attendees wanted to discuss an issue that is very much on the minds of many higher education leaders: What is the purpose of higher education? Students and their parents are increasingly demanding that college degrees lead to jobs. New forms of higher education respond by emphasizing the acquisition of career skills. Those attending the conference, like many educators, argued for a more well-rounded, liberal arts college experience. College should be about learning—and learning how to learn. What we were less certain about was whether the work of librarians contributed to that outcome, or how we could be more effective in making it happen.

Diverse Skills Wanted

What might help is knowing more about what employers want and expect. New information reveals commonalities in our thinking. Recent surveys of business leaders and employers confirm that the best job candidates demonstrate a diverse skill set with a range of abilities, not just industry-specific skills. A July 2013 survey of hiring managers and an August 2013 poll of 1,000 American adults show that majorities of the public and business leaders value broadly applicable skills like written communication and problem solving over specific skills obtained through applied training. While respondents agreed on the value of higher education, 62 percent of them said that the current system is doing only a fair or poor job of preparing graduates for the workplace. That sentiment has become a common refrain for those who hire our graduates.

Experts Seek a Mix

To explore further the issue of what employers want from college graduates, the Wall Street Journal organized an expert panel to address the question of why our students fall short of expectations. One thing agreed upon by all the experts—representing different business sectors, government, and higher education—is that America needs to make vocational education more attractive and respectable so that students unprepared for college will be open to another option. One corporate leader was blunt when he stated that college students cannot write. More research and papers, he believes, will help students gain the necessary preparation for business communication. Higher education also took its share of abuse for everything from too little rigor to too much research. One enlightened business leader had a different view, believing that higher education must do more than give employers job-ready graduates. He said, “To reduce it to training in the skills that companies need is to subordinate education—to ask it to put aside the effort to raise leaders for the future and focus on making better followers for the present.” Together, these statements paint a picture of employers that lack confidence that higher education can deliver students with the right mix of desired skills.

Research Skills Desired

Academic librarians have long felt their work can indeed contribute to the development of workplace-ready students, and that no doubt supports our belief in the importance of educating lifelong learners. Still, we may need to learn more about what happens to our postgraduation students and how well they fare in their professions when it comes to research and learning how to deliver the results. The sixth Project Information Literacy report, which focuses on how college graduates solve information problems at their jobs, provides some of the insights—and surprises—that can better inform our understanding of the skills needed by lifelong learners. For example, employers expect college graduates to use effectively online databases (yes, they do subscribe to some of the same ones we offer) and Internet search engines for information retrieval. But they also want them to be equally skilled at using old-fashioned tools like phones and printed resources to gather information. What they care less about is the ability to cite resources properly. Overall, employers found students lacking in their ability to generate comprehensive reports, in a timely fashion, that demonstrated multiple approaches to research.

It Comes Down to Collaboration

I doubt most academic librarians think about phone skills and thumbing through printed reports when we talk about helping students becoming megaliterate researchers. The new digital literacies will contribute to graduates’ success in the workplace, but the evidence coming from employers suggests there are skill sets and knowledge areas we might be overlooking as we develop lifelong learners. Where we are on the right track is in our conviction that the college learning experience must be about more than career preparation. We know this from many of the faculty members with whom we collaborate in general education courses. Students working toward degrees in architecture, accounting, or engineering question the value of the liberal arts component of their college education—and the need for research skills beyond Internet search. Academic librarians need to partner with faculty in planning how to integrate the curriculum with the research skills students need to meet their future employers’ expectations. But let’s avoid focusing so intently on only that, to the exclusion of skills students need for knowledge building and creative problem solving. Finding the right balance will be hard, but working together, it’s a goal that faculty and librarians can accomplish.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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