April 2, 2023
The Five Skills Employers Tell Me They Need
This spring marks my 25th anniversary in teaching graduate classes. During that semester, a professor fell ill, and I was made an ‘instructor’ during my last semester of graduate school. The graduate class was an MBA course in one of my specialties—anti-trust and government regulation—so, for me, teaching the material was pretty straightforward. Still, I was uneasy that I might be missing something in the classroom and as a novice professor.
So, starting 25 years ago, I’ve been asking business owners and leaders in government, military and not-for-profits what they need from recent graduates. Through the entire time, they’ve told me the same five things, and nothing more. I now share those same five answers I’ve heard in thousands of conversations over 25 years.
First, employers want graduates who are better writers. They want them to be able to quickly communicate complex ideas, explain all the sides of an issue and make their prose clear and concise. Whether it is a memo or proposal or marketing piece, they want better writers.
Second, employers want new graduates who are more numerate. Not to do the statistical work, most likely, but employers need folks to explain the statistics plainly and clearly. They want people who can interpret numbers, explain the certainty about the data they use and compare them in a way that is easy to understand. They acknowledged that, like writing, this skill was time consuming to learn.
Third, employers want people who can stand up in front of a crowd and explain their work. They want graduates who are poised, confident and can answer tough questions from the audience. They want people who can make an argument, defend a point and convince clients, coworkers and investors.
Fourth, employers want new graduates who can put their business into a more global context. They need people who can listen to the evening news and read the papers and consider how those events impact their business, for good or ill. Business leaders tell me they want graduates who can think about risks and opportunity in the news of the world. They want graduates who can think about how their business fits into the community.
Fifth, and most importantly, new graduates must be able to competently work with others. At first, this means working in a team, pulling their weight, developing trust and inspiring others. Later, this means becoming a leader, which is accomplished first by example, then by the ability to help the organization and its people overcome challenges, and the ability do difficult things. Employers need people who can take risks and lead with confidence and empathy.
That’s it; that’s all I’ve ever heard in 25 years of asking. Over this time, I’ve taught MBA students at three research universities and graduate finance at the federal government’s best graduate school. I’ve asked these questions from hundreds, if not thousands, of leaders in business and government, from CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to military generals, and everyone in between. No one ever said they needed another class in econometrics, public finance theory, tax law, corporate finance or managerial accounting. These are all important classes that we business college faculty spend a lot of time teaching. Our classes focus on reinforcing the five critical skills, but they were first learned elsewhere.
What business leaders have been telling me for 25 years is that they want graduates with much better liberal arts skills. That’s right, all five of these skills are products of a traditional liberal arts education. They begin early, at home. In fact, all these tasks begin with parents reading to kids, helping them measure flour and butter for cookies, talking with them about world events and modeling what it means to be a servant leader.
These tasks are the focus of K-6 education. This is what teachers ask for of students—literacy, numeracy, public speaking, awareness of the world and social competence. In middle school, the focus on content really begins to amplify these lessons. Social studies teaches us broadly about the world around us, and language arts teaches us how to write effectively. At that time, most of us are also exposed to algebra, the fundamental language of mathematics that explains the world.
High school adds a full dimension on top of these. For most students it will include three years of science, four of mathematics, intense composition and courses that pull these disparate disciplines together, like personal finance, world history, and the most integrated course—economics. I may be biased on that, but you get my point.
Finally, students who go on to post-secondary education will get at least a third of their coursework in classes that are specifically designed to build these skills. Of course, the students may not know it at the time, but that is where the learning that the employers in my cohort see the most value. All of what I’ve written should be pretty obviously true. However, I have a much bigger point.
Every academic program, from kindergarten to a doctoral program, spends an inordinate amount of time trying to develop the five big skills I listed previously. These are the hard skills to teach and learn. Tax law and doctoral econometrics are easy, but knowing what to do with that knowledge is complex and challenging.
Indiana has been in a rush to make our high school and college graduates more employable. In so doing, I’m concerned that we’ve softened graduation requirements and pushed students into vocational classes that too often ignore the fundamentals of learning. The skills employers actually say they need are embodied in English classes, Algebra I and II, statistics, laboratory sciences, world civilization and other courses that are familiar to any reader.
As I tell my last two kids in college, you will need to work for half a century. Whatever technical skills you learn now will be largely obsolete. The real skills you need are advanced literacy and numeracy, public speaking, awareness of the world around you and leadership. Focus on those, and the rest will take care of itself.
This is also the lesson I’d like to leave with folks trying to influence curriculum. Short changing fundamentals for career-focused learning just doesn’t pay off. Perhaps the best example is that about half of all the money we spend on workforce development is for remediation. Most of that learning is middle school-level mathematics and literacy. It is time to focus on higher standards and fundamentals.
About the Author
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