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Engaging College-Educated Workers

A recent Gallup study suggests that workers with college credentials pose a particularly difficult challenge for employers on the engagement front.

Monday, August 26, 2013
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Does a more college-educated workforce translate into a more engaged workforce? Not necessarily, according to a recent study conducted by Gallup Inc.

In a poll of 150,000 adults, Gallup found that American workers with college or post-graduate degrees were less likely to be engaged at work (28.3 percent engaged) than those with a high-school diploma or less (32.7 percent engaged).

Brandon H. Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education in Washington, says he was surprised by the finding.

"Most of us would have expected that those with college degrees would be more engaged than those without, but it appears the opposite is the case," Busteed says.

The results hold true across all age demographics, income brackets and professions, he says, noting that respondents included those who may have graduated college decades ago.

At first glance, Busteed says, Gallup's workplace engagement team theorized that the findings might be driven by the fact that college graduates have higher expectations that go unmet than those who didn't go to college. But were that the case, he adds, then why do the engagement scores "bump back up" when a person receives a post-graduate degree?

According to the study, workers with postgraduate degrees were 30.1 percent engaged.

So what are the key drivers behind the Gallup finding?

Busteed points to the misalignment between the degrees being conferred and the jobs that are available, and the fact that respondents with college degrees felt they weren't doing what they were best at every day at work. "The jobs people are in today aren't the jobs they were trained to do," he says.

"If you go all the way through high school and college, get good grades and do everything you were told to do and then end up in a job that isn't what you like doing and what you believe you're best at, it's only natural you're not going to be engaged," he says.

Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are enthusiastic about their work; non-engaged employees as those who are satisfied with their workplaces, but not emotionally connected to them; and actively disengaged employees as those who are emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace.

Busteed notes that this lack of engagement among college-educated workers puts a significant burden on HR leaders.

"Employers need to look at managing college-educated employees differently," he says. "Managers need to ask more probing questions, in an effort to uncover what these employees want to do at work and what they feel they're good at."

Companies, he adds, might also benefit from asking similar kinds of questions during the hiring process.

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 "We look at grades and other things," he says. "But too little time is spent on these fundamental things."

Mary Ann Masarech, an employee engagement practice leader with BlessingWhite in Skillman, N.J., says she isn't surprised by the Gallup findings.

"We have a lot of expertise working with highly technical talent, such as engineers, scientists, programmers and financial analysts, and they are often the least engaged populations," Masarech says.

In response, she says, employers need to have a "crystal clear point of view on career and personal development."

Employers, she adds, might want to address such questions as "What does a thriving future look like here? What does career development [look like] and who owns it? What opportunities and resources exist to build your personal portfolio of skills and experience? How can you explore potential career moves -- [such as] special projects, lateral moves and promotions?

For those departments with "expert employees," Masarech says, "make sure managers are equipped to leverage the expertise of their teams," involving them in decisions and "connecting them to mission and strategy so that they feel they are contributing to something bigger."

Reflecting on Gallup's findings, Busteed suggests that employers might go so far as to question the notion that certain roles require a college degree. "We've made the assumption that having a college degree is better," he says. "But the fact is you may find some great candidates without college degrees who are very engaged in their jobs, who learn quickly and who are infinitely trainable."

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