Broad-Based Knowledge or Technical Skills? Employers Say We’ll Take Both – Along With a Few Years of Experience

Blog Post
Oct. 1, 2013

A recent survey released by Northeastern University nicely captures the near total lack of agreement on the mix of knowledge and skills today’s college graduates need to succeed. The absence of consensus isn’t the result of disagreements between business and the general public. To the contrary, results from two polls – one of 263 business “hiring decision makers” and the other of 1000 adults – closely track one another. Rather, the responses reflect deep ambivalence on the part of both groups about the purpose of higher education, the needs and roles of employers, and the qualities that lead to career success.

Let’s begin with a major finding that was emphasized in a number of press accounts: a majority of business leaders and the public believe that a broad-based education and “soft” skills such as verbal and written communication, problem-solving, and teamwork, are more valuable than specific, industry-based skills. This finding led much of the coverage of the event and came as solace to advocates of the liberal arts. The headline from News@Northeastern captured the hopes of many in higher education: “Most Americans and business leaders want colleges to provide a broad-​​based education.”

Other findings, however, cast doubt on how much businesses value broad knowledge and skills. Sixty percent of respondents agreed that someone with work experience but no degree would perform better than someone with a degree but no experience. Another finding indicated that nearly two-thirds of respondents believe colleges are doing only a poor or fair job at preparing graduates for work. These findings generated quite different headlines in some trade outlets like this one from the Hechinger Report: “Survey: Colleges Aren’t Preparing Graduates for Jobs.”The results tell us that broad-based knowledge and soft skills are the most important, but practical skills and work experience might be even more important; that colleges are doing a poor job, but graduating from colleges is more important than ever.

Given these muddled findings, it seems fair to excuse educators for struggling to meet the complex needs of today’s students and employers. Beyond that, is there anything else we can draw from the survey to help make sense of what’s missing from higher education today? For starters, we can compare the responses of business leaders to industry hiring practices. On that front there is paltry evidence to support the claim that employers prefer candidates with broad-based skills over those with technical knowledge and industry experience. Since the Great Recession, numerous studies have revealed a strong preference for targeted skills and experience. Manpower Group’s 2012 Talent Shortage Survey is illustrative. According to the survey, roughly half of employers say they are struggling to find qualified candidates. According the same survey, the top ten hardest jobs to fill include IT Staff, Engineers, Sales Representatives, and Accounting and Finance Staff. Given the oversupply of college graduates with broad-based knowledge and skills and their relatively high unemployment rates, one might expect these same companies to hire and train them in the industry-specific skills they need. But that’s not happening. Instead, as the survey documents, employers are more willing than ever to let vacancies stay open while they look for the candidate with the exact right mix of skills and experience.

Which brings us to another distressing labor market trend and reason to treat the Northeastern results with caution: declining business investment in training.

Despite the fact that 73% percent of business respondents agreed that “Being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry experience because job-specific skills can be learned at work”, a 2011 Accenture survey found that only 21% of U.S. employees received any employer-provided formal training in the past five years. There is little evidence that employers are willing to invest in training for new hires, or even incumbent workers.

So what does all this tell us? On the one hand, educators can take heart that employers and the public agree that a well-rounded education provides the strongest foundation for long-term career success. Equipping people with broad knowledge, effective communication skills, and the capacity to think and act creatively are what higher education does best.

Providing individuals with work experience and industry-specific skills, on the other hand, is historically the preserve of businesses themselves, through formal training programs, apprenticeship programs, or other labor-management partnerships. If today’s employers want well-rounded graduates who are also proficient in specific skills and have on-the-job experience, they need to be part of the education process, and not just on the receiving end. When it comes to building a flexible, intelligent, and well-trained workforce, its time for business and industry to assume their role in the process and become part of the solution."