Does university adequately prepare graduates for the workforce?

Some work experience prior to graduation is helpful

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

It is pretty clear to me that reports of a widespread skills shortage are seriously overblown. While there are always going to be shortages of skills relating to emerging technologies and in certain geographic areas, the problem may relate more to how organizations attract, retain, train, develop and compensate employees.

Employers these days expect employees to hit the ground running right from day one. Perhaps they expect too much – especially from recent grads and younger employees new to the workforce.

However, we keep hearing about so-called skills shortages among recent grads. The idea is that many graduates seem to lack the types of skills sought by employers.

A skills mismatch

While there is definitely a skills mismatch with new graduates, to some extent that has always been the case. Postsecondary students have always flocked to programs that didn’t necessarily lead directly to a specific career, and university in particular never really focused on turning out job ready graduates.

Other than in the case of professional faculties, university was never meant to be a trade or vocational school. Instead, the goal of a university education was to create better informed citizens – although there are certain fringe benefits that frequently do translate to more rewarding and lucrative careers down the road.

I agree to a certain extent with people who recommend an increased focus on science, mathematics and technology education in order to prepare graduates for so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. However, I believe it would be a dangerous thing to try to turn everyone into engineers, technologists or scientists, and shortages in those areas are also overblown (some of those grads even struggle to find work in their fields).

People must realize that few graduates who majored in sociology at the undergraduate level become sociologists and those who studied history rarely become historians. We seem to be moving away from the idea that simply having a degree in anything – regardless of the discipline – is enough to establish a successful career (although there is evidence to suggest that a liberal arts degree is a great educational foundation to build upon).

Many people go to university who probably never should have gone in the first place. For many people, university is seen as the only way to secure a successful career and a middle class lifestyle. But that was never intended to be the role of the university.

Declining standards

A couple of years ago, I took an undergraduate degree credit course at a local university through night school. It was the first time in about 10 years I had taken such a course in class. I also took a couple of other university courses online.

It could be that I’m looking back with rose coloured glasses, but it felt to me like the levels of professionalism and maturity had deteriorated among undergraduates within just a few years. Few students seemed to have much real world work experience to draw upon in class discussions, and the standards of verbal and written communications seemed pretty poor among many of my classmates.

It all seemed very different from continuing education classes at the very same university 10 or 15 years before, where people had interesting experiences to draw upon and were frequently involved in intelligent discussions. (Interestingly, the standards seemed much higher in the community college courses I took.)

Making university more practical

While I’m not arguing students these days have any less ability than they did in the past, perhaps some people attend university who shouldn’t be there. I also believe some meaningful work experience can provide a lot of context – particularly in more practical programs like business administration.

I believe co-ops, work terms, internship programs and articulation agreements are great ways to make the university experience more practical and provide a bridge between academia and the real world. Another option comes from an article I read recently in Chief Learning Officer magazine that argued one way to narrow the skills gap might be to require some work experience in the field before admitting students to an academic program.

That might help to avoid a problem I read about recently relating to graduate recruitment programs. According to one study, about two-thirds of U.K. graduates regretted accepting their jobs and one-fifth applied for jobs they weren’t interested in just to gain work experience.

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