James Mitchell| Crain’s Custom Media

The gap seems wider than ever between what educators consider workplace-ready graduates and what the real world says in return.

From the education side, surveys conducted in 2014 by Gallup revealed that 96 percent of college admission officers believe their graduates are ready for their chosen career; only 11 percent of business leaders agreed. The survey included more than 600 business leaders, and while 84 percent of the respondents said that general knowledge of a candidate’s chosen field was important, 79 percent said that applied skills were equally critical. The survey also offered a bubble-bursting revelation that only about 9 percent of the respondents – business leaders and average citizens included – considered a candidate’s particular alma mater to be important; more than half declared it unimportant.)

That disparity has increased the anxiety of students saddled with expensive student loans – estimated as having risen 250 percent in the past three years – who are anxious to enter a well-paying career path, yet find themselves unqualified for available work. The goal is shared, and how to go about bringing the mutual expectations closer together is the subject of a series of panel discussions that began in February.

“We hope to not just send people to college,” said National Campus Leaders Council Executive Director Andy MacCracken. “They have to be able to succeed.”

That keynote launched a “Student Speak Series,” sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and Workforce Intelligence Network, the start of a 15-city tour to put students and business leaders at the table in search of definitions and a strategy. MacCracken said that the sessions were expected to involve 200 student body leaders and 100 business and hiring managers with hopes of identifying ways to bridge the expectations gap.

The series began in Detroit in February and continued through March in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, San Antonio and Albuquerque, with April sessions to include Boston, New Orleans and Columbia, SC. Organizers said the consensus has been that employers need qualified workers, and that students are challenged with expensive degrees that fail to provide the necessary skills.

Obtaining a degree or certificate is, students believe, the best path to high-paying careers. From the business end, hiring managers understand that the paper chase invites expectations.

“The purpose of higher education is to get a job,” said Jason Dawson, Executive Vice President of Talascend Worldwide Technical Resources. Dawson cited career placement services at the University of Michigan’s business school as one example of readiness training and assistance.

Andrew Smart, Director of Society Programs and Industry Relations at the Troy offices of SAE International, said that academic success was just one part of a career foundation and that students need to think beyond the degree. What also seemed missing among even student leaders, he said, was an understanding of the recruitment process and resume development.

Student and industry perspectives agreed a degree or certificate reflected the needed technical knowledge for most fields, but fell short of teaching the real-world skills necessary to be workplace-ready.

“A lot of learning experiences happen outside the classroom,” said William Alexander, Student Body Leader at Wayne State University. “Our skills are defined outside of the classroom: leadership and being able to work with other students.”

The extent to which educators are responsible for non-academic skills was among the lingering questions.

“Should higher education be on the hook for the extra-curricular skills?” MacCracken summarized a key question to explore in future sessions. The NCLC will update its findings from spring sessions in a report expected this summer.
For information on the Students Speak session visit www.nationalcampusleaders.org.

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