Are Grads Ready to Work?

New college graduates aren’t nearly as prepared to enter the workplace as they think, according to several recent reports. While these findings didn’t seem to surprise any experts, the bigger question facing HR directors is this: How can they help bridge this gap?

Nearly nine of 10 graduating students felt they were proficient in terms of professionalism and work ethic, but only four in 10 employers shared that opinion, according to the results of two separate surveys from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. One report, titled Job Outlook 2018, polled the organization’s business members, skewing heavily toward established Fortune 1000 companies. The second report, the Class of 2017 Student Survey Report, polled 4,213 graduating students.

A similar gap existed when both groups were asked about students’ oral- and written-communication skills, with 80 percent of students saying they were proficient, but only 42 percent of employers agreeing. The gap was closer when considering critical thinking; 80 percent of students felt proficient and 56 percent of employers agreed. Because this was one of the first times NACE compared these two surveys, there’s not enough data to show whether these gaps are expanding, says Mimi Collins, the director of content strategy for NACE.

A 2016 report from PayScale echoed these same findings. In that report, 87 percent of graduates thought they were “well prepared” to enter the workforce, but only half of managers agreed. The two biggest hard skill deficiencies for graduates were writing proficiency and public speaking; the two biggest soft skills lacking for graduates were critical thinking and attention to detail.

But some were ready to throw cold water on these findings. “Every generation of employers from baby boomers to gen xers to millennials always thinks the next generation is a bunch of incompetent idiots,” says Steven Rothberg, the president of College Recruiter, a job-search site for students and recent graduates.

While Rothberg doesn’t dismiss the claims of unprepared students, he says it is easy for companies, and especially HR departments, to train students in the needed skills. He suggests a week-long boot camp that goes beyond the typical health and retirement benefits talks to reinforce to new employees the need to dress appropriately, not to talk back to customers and to avoid using textspeak such as “OMG” when communicating to their boss.

“There’s been a debate for a long time” between employers and colleges about whose responsibility it is to equip graduates with these skills, says Lydia Frank, vice president of content strategy for PayScale. This Seattle-based company advises more than 6,500 companies on how to fairly compensate employees.

“Professionalism is a pretty subjective word,” Frank says, but she adds that today’s millennials are more likely to question and push back on management decisions than past generations. If a new worker questions authority, some managers could see the action as critical thinking, while others chalk it up to being unprofessional, she adds.

NACE’s Collins stays out of the debate about whether students or employees are right, saying both sides have different perceptions of readiness. “College students don’t have a whole lot of work experience,” she says, adding that internships can help students understand the responsibilities of a job and introduce them to workplace norms. Once hired, HR departments can help the new employees “understand the unwritten rules for the company,” especially because each company is going to define career readiness differently.

She defended colleges accused of not preparing students, noting that many offer career centers that are underused. For instance, students who go through practice interviews on campus have a better outcome than those who don’t, she says. “It’s up to the student, but lots of them don’t take advantage” of these offers.

Frank says she thinks new employees are frequently given too much freedom, resulting in confusion and poor performance in some cases. “Students are used to being given a syllabus and really understanding what’s being covered,” she says, suggesting companies offer very clear expectations for new employees, which isn’t happening now. “Not a ton of companies are doing employee training and onboarding,” Frank adds.

Rothberg says that while most large companies have onboarding programs, they often stop short of being effective. “This is absolutely an HR function,” he says, adding that managing the first few months of an employee’s time at a company is as important as recruiting. “It’s astounding to me” that so many companies don’t take more care with new employees, Rothberg says. He suggests companies study the military to see how its basic training gives new soldiers the hard and soft skills they need. “Employers could learn a lot from the military; they’re pretty darn scientific.”

Rothberg says that millennials are also entering the workforce with a different mindset than yesterday’s baby boomers. Work/life balance is much more important to today’s young workers, he says, as they are less likely to be rewarded for spending 60 hours a week at their jobs.

“Today’s graduates are disillusioned by corporate life. They feel if they give 110 percent, it won’t matter,” Rothberg says. “They’ll still get arbitrarily laid off, asked to suck up more healthcare expenses and be denied raises that used to be automatic.”

Wayne D'Orio
Wayne D'Orio is a freelance writer based in Brookfield, Conn. He can be reached at