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Business Digest: Higher ed failing to train students for work, says businesses


U.S. business leaders are losing faith in the ability of higher education to train the work force of the future.

That’s the takeaway from a report entitled “Hiring and Higher Education,” released Feb. 13 by two think tanks, The Committee for Economic Development (CED) in Washington and Public Agenda in New York.

The report compiles comments from four focus groups with business leaders, two in Texas and two in Ohio, and one-on-one interviews with executives from around the nation.

According to Allison Rizzola, a spokesperson for Public Agenda, the purpose of the study was to give the business community a voice in the process of educational reform.

Despite the current economy, business leaders say they are dealing with “lots of unfilled positions,” yet they can’t find suitable applicants coming out of college.

“Colleges are turning out young people with degrees [but they] don’t have the skill sets,” said one focus group participant. “They’ve got a degree but they’re in that stack of applications that keeps getting tossed out because they don’t have the skill sets that [we are] looking for.”

This is particularly true in technical fields, such as engineering, science and math.

“[I]n those areas, we’re falling behind the world,” said one executive. “You hear these stats about who’s developing all the world’s great technologies now; they’re not really being developed in the U.S. any more. They’re being developed in China or in India [where there are] … very smart young people who’ve been educated.”

As a result, some business leaders said they are forced to train new hires internally.

“[W]e start 30 kids every year in a four-year company program,” said one focus group participant. “We … have … to produce our own.”

According to the report, U.S. students lack not only technical skills, but also “character … interpersonal skills and comportment.” Furthermore, new hires “cannot write a decent document” and they need to be taught not to come to work in flip-flops and “raggy jeans,” the report states.

And college graduates generally don’t seem to be open to old-school ways of communication.

One business executive described a job that requires employees to make contact with companies to verify information, but some newly hired people prefer to use e-mail or simply look up information on Google. “But we specifically have to confirm listings on the telephone because frequently Google is wrong,” the executive said. “But we just can’t get [young employees] to pick up the telephone.”

While acknowledging that the U.S. system of higher education is “the best in the world,” executives also questioned whether colleges and universities provide enough return on investment for students, or for the economy.

“I think the amount in student loans that people are graduating with now is outrageous,” said one focus group participant. “I don’t think that’s good for the economy. I don’t think it’s good for someone to be paying that back for 10 or 20 years instead of saving up to buy a house or buy a car.”

However, according to the report, the executives generally agreed that problems in “the quality of people” are rooted in what their new hires were taught before college, in the K-12 system.

“They can’t spell. They can’t read and write. But yet they got this diploma,” said a survey participant.

For more outraged comments from business leaders on the current state of higher education, download the full report here.

– by John Stodder


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About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

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