What Employers Want – Part 2

What do today’s business leaders want in recent graduates? According to yet another survey, business leaders feel that students do not graduate with appropriate knowledge and applied skills. Having worked for many years in industry, part of what drives this view is surely the desire among business leaders to reduce training costs for new hires and to shift applied skills training to public higher education. It is an attempt to expand benefits to private enterprise at public expense, and also create opportunities for new competency-based education providers. See the full survey report here.

Public higher education, of course, resists this, but they will respond to the criticism to greater or lesser extents. Many will eventually figure out that despite being responsive to business leaders’ interests, they had little intention of hiring lots of people, at least in the near-term, and perhaps longer. In the past I have blogged about what employers want professors to teach and the purported existence of a skills gap among new graduates. I attributed this as an excuse for employers to avoid hiring people.

Let’s assume that business leaders’ actually want to hire people, but the knowledge and skills new graduates possess is inappropriate. What else could be driving this view? It could be that an impression has formed among business leaders that technology changes the knowledge and skills needed. This is true to an extent, but many, if not most of today’s students are technology savvy as technology users, coders, or both. So, business leaders’ impression could be incorrect because they do not know for a fact the knowledge and skills new graduates possess. Instead, they seem to rely on hearsay from their peers, resulting in groupthink – the opposite of critical thinking that professors tried so hard to teach business leaders. If the CEO of General Electric said it, then it must be true. But, why is it that google has no problem finding people with needed skills and competencies, yet Caterpillar can’t?

If we continue to see this as a people problem, then all that is accomplished is to make people defensive, unhappy, and respond in ways that do not correct the problem. Instead, let’s look at it from a process perspective, because that eliminates blame and focuses people on understanding the true nature of the problem and making tangible improvements.

What if the process use to determine key job requirements for new graduates is flawed and results in incorrect specifications or, more likely, over-specification? A long list of requirements greatly narrows the field of potential candidates and likely includes many requirements that are actually needed to do the job. Over-specification – just-in-case, to cover all bases, or to appease the boss – makes follow-on processes (interviewing, evaluating candidates, and hiring) more difficult.

What if the hiring process results in hiring people who interview well, but who do not do good work. Managers are easily taken in by good bullshitters (confirming evidence bias). Perhaps, finally, business leaders are seeing the effects of over-specifying job requirements and bad hiring processes, which rewards good bullshitting skills rather than knowledge, skills, and work ethic. Perhaps our proud, data-driven business leaders should get some data – and, crucially, facts – to support their opinion on skills gaps.

For about 10 years I taught an undergraduate course on leadership skills for supervisors, during which we discusses the hiring processes. I asked each class if anyone had ever been wowed by a hiring process. None had. Nearly everyone said hiring processes that they had experienced were slow, cumbersome, filled with unthinking, idiotic interview questions, and disrespectful to applicants in the lack of timely response or feedback. Most hiring processes make a bad first impression, which students talk about to their peers.

My recommendation to business leaders is to look inside your own organizations, at your own process, and also gain some facts and data to see of your perception of a skills gap is accurate or not. In tandem, you should kaizen your processes for identifying key job requirements, interviewing and evaluating candidates, and your overall hiring process so that you wow our graduates. Maybe then you’ll hire people who have the knowledge, skills, work ethic, and quality of work output that you are looking for.

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