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'Basic' Training for College Grads

A new survey bolsters the notion that college graduates need better preparation just to get jobs that utilize their degrees. Meanwhile, the HR Policy Association has launched a new website in which recruiters from large employers dispense advice to graduates on interviewing, resumes, compensation, appropriate attire and workplace behavior.

Monday, May 13, 2013
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While most college graduates may have solid academic knowledge, employers are complaining that more than a few lack basic workaday skills and poor interview etiquette -- like answering text messages while the recruiter is talking and bringing their "helicopter parents" to try to negotiate salaries.

Moreover, many college graduates applying for entry-level jobs are losing out to others who have already acquired some job-specific skills, according to a recent Accenture study. Colleges can partner with employers to offer students basic training while they are still in school, and human resource managers can boost retention of graduates if they bolster development programs after they are hired.

To that end, the HR Policy Association in Washington has launched http://www.jobipedia.org/, a website aimed to give college students advice and answer any questions they may have about job interviews and entering the professional workforce. The association of top human resource managers from the country's largest companies, including Merck & Co. Inc., AT&T Inc. and IBM Corp., have enlisted their recruiters to post more than 1,200 personalized responses to questions students can ask on the site about interviewing, resumes, compensation, appropriate attire and workplace behavior.

While many college graduates are already armed with such knowledge, the idea for the advice website came out of discussions among several of the group's members that many of today's graduates lack some basic professional skills -- such as how to write a resume, behave in an interview or assimilate into the workplace, says Jaime Fall, HRPA's vice president for workforce development.

In particular, more than a few millennials have no idea how to behave professionally in interviews, Fall says. Many young people will pull out folded resumes in their back pocket and hand it to the hiring manager, and many actually answer text messages during interviews.

"It's how they live their lives -- their phones are always in their hands, and in many cases it's a security thing," he says. "Maybe it's their first job interview and it just doesn't occur to them that this is not appropriate."

One graduate applying for a job brought her cat into an interview because she said the cat helped explain who she was as a person, Fall says. Another fellow, a post-doctorate, wore a tan leather, three-piece 70's suit because he said it made him feel like Star Wars' Hans Solo.

"They want to express their individuality and be remembered, but employers really like that within acceptable norms," he says.

There are also helicopter parents who will coach their son or daughter in the waiting room as the recruiter calls in the graduate, and some will actually try to walk into the interview with them, Fall says.

"Some parents try to negotiate salaries, even one for a position with a requirement to negotiate with customers," he says. "Helicopter parents are thought to be from the first generation of latch-key kids, who had to fend for themselves, and now they are overcompensating for that."

Nearly 50 universities, including Cornell University, Duke University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, have made the website available to students at their college career centers.

"Feedback from them has been very positive," Fall says. "We hope it makes their jobs easier, by giving students support and advice on getting jobs."

The Accenture 2013 College Graduate Employment Survey bolsters the notion that college graduates need better preparation to get jobs that utilize their degrees. The survey, which polled 1,010 students who will be graduating from college in 2013, and 1,005 students who graduated from college in 2011 and 2012, showed that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) said that -- despite their degrees -- they will need more training in order to get their desired job.

That doesn't mean colleges aren't doing a good job preparing students with a general foundation of analytical and problem-solving skills, says Katherine LaVelle, the Washington-based managing director of Accenture's talent and organization practice in North America.

"But employers have a glut of available applicants for entry-level jobs and many college grads are actually competing with candidates who have been in the workplace for several years and already have specific job skills," LaVelle says. "So college graduates need some specific job training to better compete."

As a result, many graduates have to settle for less-skilled jobs. Indeed, 41 percent of workers who graduated from college in the past two years say they are underemployed and working in jobs that do not require their college degrees, according to Accenture's survey.

Some employers partner with colleges to offer job-specific training programs, she says. For example, Dow Chemical Co., based in Midland, Mich. has a partnership with nearby Delta College, to offer a 12-week customized Dow training program on campus for college credit. Upon graduation, the company employs the majority of the program's participants.

While college internships at employer worksites are a good way to teach students job-specific skills, interns typically represent a very small percentage of those hired, LaVelle says.

"Most clients talk about the inability to absorb a lot of college interns, so they might be able to hire one person who is well-prepared because they interned, while the other 12 newly hired graduates do not have the same benefits," she says.

Some colleges have job simulations or project assignments for students to solve a problem, such as joining a consulting team for an employer. Employers will also offer "virtual job tours" to college career centers, as well as post them on their own recruiting sites.

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Accenture's study also identified a wide gap between the expectations 2013 graduates have for employer-provided training and what they are likely to receive when they start working. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of pending 2013 graduates expect their first employer to provide formal training, but fewer than half (48 percent) of 2011 and 2012 graduates surveyed say they received formal training in their first job after graduation.

LaVelle says this can backfire on employers.

"When employees hired for junior-level positions are underutilized, there tends to be higher turnover, as they are only staying there until they find another job," she says. "Organizations need to look across their entire population for high-potential people and discuss where they would like to go within the organization. They will tend to have higher retention rates and more motivated employees if they offer learning and development programs to them."

Further underscoring the disillusion felt by recent college graduates, 42 percent of 2011 and 2012 graduates expect they will need to pursue a graduate level degree to further their career, according to Accenture's survey.

"This should be a message to employers that if they want to keep their employees, they've got to be developing them as well, or else they might leave," LaVelle says.

Janet Marler, associate professor of management at the University at Albany in New York, says there is anecdotal evidence that suggests Millenials have a different attitude toward work than, say, Baby Boomers when they first graduated, because the two generations grew up in different contexts.

While the traditional role of colleges has been to broadly educate students in different academic disciplines and teach them how to think analytically and critically, more students and their parents are also now expecting colleges to prepare graduates to actually get a job -- especially as education costs continue to escalate, Marler says.

"Colleges are really focused on professionally developing students and showing them how to make the transition from the education environment they've spent years and years in, into the business environment, which is very different in its norms and expectations," she says.

The problem is, as costs rise and colleges cut back on expenses, many are doing away with their career placement centers, which is an add-on service, Marler says. As such, students are not getting the kinds of training and practicing for interviewing they did before. Moreover, there are also increased faculty-to-student ratios, so there is less faculty interaction with students.

To compensate for this trend, employers are investing in training and development programs, including for graduates just entering the workforce -- but that can also be tricky as many young people only stay for a short time before they move onto other employers, she says.

"They can invest strategically in positions, depending on how important those positions are to the company," Marler says. "They should think how they are going to attract and select the best people, and choose selection methodologies for the important skills and abilities they need. Then they can invest in paying and training those employees so they can retain them."

 

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