Students think they're ready for the real world; employers, not so much

Many of today’s college students are stunningly ill-prepared for the professional world. What’s worse, they don’t even realize it.

A survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities finds that about 70% of college students think they possess the critical thinking skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Employers, on the other hand, are far less optimistic. Less than a third think newly minted college grads are ready for the real world.

There’s good reason for this divide. Employers increasingly value skills that often aren’t taught on the average college campus. And most students are completely unaware of employer demands because they fail to plan for life outside the academic bubble.

Many employers have stopped putting so much stock in academic achievements alone

Colleges need to repair this disconnect. The global job market is only getting more competitive. Faculty and administrators must make sure students develop the aptitudes that can actually secure them long-term, satisfying employment.

Consider soft skills like teamwork and collaboration. While 60% of college students think they excel here, just 40% of employers agree. When it comes to the quality and speed of their decision-making, student confidence is twice as high as employers’.

At the same time, many employers have stopped putting so much stock in academic achievements alone. In fact, a recent survey from the research firm Millennial Branding found that only 2% of employers consider GPA the most important factor when evaluating job applications. These discrepancies are exacerbated by the fact that many students fail to take advantage of the opportunities provided by school administrators to acquire professional skills.

Fortunately, there are ways to improve student career readiness. For starters, colleges can adjust their curricula to better simulate real-world working conditions. For example, most jobs don’t require the sort of sustained, independent work it takes to finish a term paper; collaboration is quite common. That’s why Purdue University lends some of its business students out to local small businesses to act as consultants. Professors in all academic programs should look for similar opportunities.

Leadership matters, too. Only micromanagers provide employees with minute-by-minute orders. At most offices, workers are expected to identify employer needs on their own, adapt accordingly, and guide colleagues when appropriate. Given that, American University has launched a public affairs leadership program, which challenges students to identify a social ill and try to resolve it.

Career service programs also have a role to play in prepping students for life after college. Administrators should focus on increasing the number of internships available, expanding the variety of participating employers, and allowing students to accrue credit from all manner of part-time professional opportunities.

Notably, Alma College in Michigan has installed a forward-looking careers services program that provides students $2,500 grants toward off-campus internships, fellowships or research.

American institutions of higher education need to narrow the gap between what the average student learns and what the average employer demands. If not, future generations of graduates are going to find themselves locked out of the job market and deprived of the chance to find meaning and purpose in work.

 

By John Hyde and Amy Bravo for Forbes.com