By Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D., President, Educational Policy Institute and Principal, SwailLandis
I have a problem with some business leaders. Sometimes they say one thing and mean another. Perhaps this is why we are getting more business types in politics these days. We don’t really know what they mean when they say something, so it always sounds like a pretty good deal. That is, until we find out what they really mean. Then we have a problem.
For years there have been arguments/discussions about establishing more dialogue between colleges and universities and business/industry about what the skills that graduates should possess. The complaint is that higher education does not produce graduates with the attributes that business and industry really requires in the workforce. Colleges produce degrees and certain skillsets, but does not always produce those skillsets commensurate with those valued in the working world.
In 2015, the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) hired Hart Research of Washington, DC to poll employers about college students. Here are some of their findings:
- Ninety-one percent that career success requires a demonstrated capacity to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.”
- Ninety-six percent said that college students should have “experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different fromtheir own.”
- Seventy-eight 78 percent agree that “all college students should gain intercultural skills and an understanding of societies and countries outside the United States.”
In addition, employers endorse “broad learning as essential to long-term career success,” and they place the “greatest priority on a demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across majors,” including written and oral communication, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings.
It is hard to argue with any of these findings. These are what I want from employees. I want them to think critically, think on their feet, and have a diverse pattern of thought based on diverse experiences. I want intercultural skills. I want cross-cutting skills. As an employer, I simply want it all. To be fair, I don’t usually get all of this. I get some of it; but not all of it. That can be expected, of course. But colleges and universities do not do a very good job preparing people for the workforce. They prepare them to graduate.
What do I mean by that? They teach students the skills to finish coursework, to finish classes, to persevere from year-to-year until they march across the stage to receive their coveted parchment diploma.
My point in this Swail Letter is that I don’t generally buy what business is selling. Business says they want these attributes in their young workers, but their hiring practices illustrate a very different practice. For decades, business has focused almost exclusively on credential and less about competency. The resume provides two important credential items for employers: the degree and the college. The degree tells an employer the focus area of the prospective employee (e.g., business major with accounting). The college tells the employer about the selectivity of the institution, and arguably the quality of the institution.
The “soft skills,” as they like to call them, do not lift off a resume. With monster.com and many other job sites, resumes are mathematically processed to give a generic score of an applicant. The soft skill simply does not lift off the page. What does? The degree. The college. And perhaps the GPA. Here is language from the monster.com website about their “Talent Analytics” software:
Monster Talent Analytics gives you a fast, insightful approach to answering questions that move you forward:
- Helps save you time and money armed with relevant data before making long-term decisions
- Measure talent source performance and identify skill strengths, gaps, and trends
- Access industry data to improve recruitment planning
- Locate top schools for a major, top employers in a location, or top skills for a position
Sounds good to me. But what are they actually measuring? They say skill strengths, but how are they measuring that? I chatted with monster.com for this Swail Letter, and the reality is that all monster.com does is collect the resume information electronically from job seekers and keep it in a database. They match what is on the resume with what the employer is looking for. Thus, a fairly low bar of analytics. The “skill strengths” that monster boasts are simply self-reported data from job seekers. They can say anything.
The only possible measure of soft skills comes during an interview. Sure, someone could list community service activities on their resume, but that doesn’t mean that they either did them or that they aren’t just playing the system to plush up a resume. One does not know until they meet a prospective employee what they are like, and to be more truthful, one sometimes does not know until you employ them. Most employers will tell you that the hiring process is one of the worst jobs we do. It is a guestimate that the person you hire will be able to fulfil the work that you have in mind for them. This isn’t simply about entry-level employees, either. I have hired very senior people in the past that just didn’t cut it. I’ve found that there usually is a reason why people are available at certain points in their careers. Sometimes it is downsizing. Sometimes it just didn’t work out. In the end, buyers need to beware.
My point is simple: businesses have done the entire system a disservice by saying they want certain skills only to hire people on a completely different set of criteria: credentials. The degree tells me one thing: that the person has the ability to complete. That’s about it. Did they complete in four years? Five? Six? That really isn’t that relevant. I completed my bachelor’s degree from the University of Manitoba in five years. Not because I was lazy, but rather, because I changed majors after the first year and had to fit in 120 credit hours related to the new major. That decision cost me a year, and it was worth it. It got me here. Because of that decision, I was a better fit after one year of university. But to the employer, the five-year red flag might come across as a negative unless they dig deeper.
A degree doesn’t tell me exactly what the person excelled at in their studies unless they provide specific examples on their resume about what they did. In my line of work, if they say they are skilled in SPSS or SAS and they list the types of analyses they done in the past, I have some comfort in knowing what they can do for me. If they have done certain research and worked on specific projects doing “X,” it is very helpful. But their degree? Extraordinarily limited. Show me your skills!
This is why I have consistently pushed for a move toward competency-based education. As readers may know, this isn’t my first writing about CBE, and I apologize for the continued hyper focus on this issue. However, let us be clear: CBE affords an employer a clue to what skills the job seeker learned or practiced during his or her degree or certificate program. For those out there that say that CBE doesn’t fit everything, there is some truth to that, but only some. We can, through CBE, still measure English Literature and other things. It doesn’t take away important classroom dialogue about the meaning of Dostoevsky’s “one square yard of space” or the real meaning of Macbeth’s “out out, brief candle!” Those dialogues are the basis of intellectual curiosity and higher-order thinking skills. They are important. But the thought behind these things can be measured and attained.
My message to business and industry is simple: if you want these other, softer skill sets, then you need to work with institutions to help them build this into the degree programs and you must simply step away from using only credentials for your hiring practices. Until that happens, the only thing that really matters for a job seeker is if they went to college, where they went to college, and if they finished college. Because businesses don’t really look under the hood.