How Higher Education Can Deliver the Top Skills Employers Need Most


The landscape of professional work has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. As many companies adapt to hybrid environments and more agile project management, their expectations of new grads — and their skills — are also evolving. 

Employers are also ready to hire. According to data collected by NACE in their Job Outlook 2022 survey, employers are planning to hire 26.6% more new graduates in 2022 than they did in 2021. That lines up with ongoing trends of rising job openings, a low unemployment rate, and a competitive labor market. 

In an interview with The New York Times, Jennifer Neef, director of the Career Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said, “The appetite for college labor is strong right now, whether it’s student positions, or part-time, all the way through entry-level jobs.”
In some ways, the job market hasn’t changed; employers still have a list of “must-have” and “nice to have” requirements for their prospective employees. What has changed are some of the requirements on that list.


Who is Responsible for Teaching Soft Skills?

Jim Link, CHRO of Randstad North America, shared a story with SHRM about his son’s college internship. His son was faced with unresponsive coworkers, which was keeping him from being able to complete his assigned task. Jim worked to coach his son, teaching him to be “inspirationally irritating,” persistent, and persuasive with his coworkers. Essentially, Jim wanted his son to learn to work well with others, using influence, persuasion, negotiation, and other “soft skills” that clearly hadn’t been covered in his son’s college courses.

“Adaptability, problem-solving, creativity, influence, drive empathy and collaboration. What I’ve observed is that those things … aren’t being practiced by college graduates,” Link shared. 

This isn’t a unique experience or opinion. SHRM published The Global Skills Shortage report in 2019, which outlined the gaps and insufficiencies in candidates seeking jobs as observed by employers. There were clear trends. Some of the data reported included:

  • Over a third of respondents reported a decrease in applicant quality
  • 35% of respondents claimed candidates didn’t have the required work experience
  • 33% of respondents said applicants didn’t seem interested enough in their organization
  • 30% of respondents reported candidates lacked the right workplace/soft skills

The same SHRM report also identified the top missing technical skills and the top missing soft skills. The missing technical skills included trade skills (carpentry, plumbing, etc.), data analytics, and science/engineering/medical categories. Those are likely due to a lack of applicants who are majoring or studying in those areas. 

The missing soft skills were problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, dealing with ambiguity, and communication. Where are students supposed to be learning those soft skills? Does a science degree also cover communication? Certainly, students have to communicate with their classmates and professors, but are they graded on that aspect of their work? Do medical programs proactively address how to deal with ambiguity or communicate effectively? They may, but it’s obvious from the data not all programs are getting students the soft skills they need to be successful. 

Higher education includes room for soft skill work. Many programs already cover similar topics, if passively. Now the task is to directly address those topics as marketable skills, instead of secondary “nice to have” features.


How Higher Ed Can Start to Fill the Soft Skills Gap

Inside Higher Ed shared the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ report How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most. The report contained some good news about the perceived value of higher education by companies, but it also showed some places where higher education has room for improvement. 

The report found employers DO value higher education, seeing its ability to provide the skills and knowledge required for people to be successful in a corporate setting. Employers also reported graduates are generally more capable of showing what skills they bring to the table during interviews. Higher education also provides students with additional opportunities and applied learning experiences, which typically give those new graduates an edge in being hired.

That being said, there were also some gaps illustrated by the report. The perceived value of higher ed depends upon a few factors, including the age of the hiring manager and the breadth and depth of learning that a new grad can demonstrate. Among the highest-ranked capabilities, in terms of employer perception, the top three capabilities were:

  1. Ability to work effectively in teams (62% claimed this skill to be “very important”)
  2. Critical thinking skills (60% claimed this skill to be “very important”)
  3. Ability to analyze and interpret data (57% claimed this skill to be “very important”)

Those three things can be directly addressed by classes and programs in higher education. Programs have ongoing opportunities to define these qualities as part of their syllabi and convey to students the importance of these skills in their future job searches. 

What else can higher ed provide that would help new grads successfully show they are building these skills? Some highly-rated assets from the AACU report included internships and apprenticeship programs, working or volunteering in diverse community settings, participating in work-study, or building a portfolio showing both technical and soft skills. Practices like building a portfolio also build significant confidence in students, helping them better convey their strengths, capabilities, and passions.  

Institutions of higher education should be working to provide experiences and mentorships that will help students cultivate and communicate these soft skills as they prepare to enter the workforce.


Level Up Your Soft Skills With Focused Programs

Higher education should be helping students build and illustrate their soft skills, but that isn’t the only way for students to get the experience they need to be competitive job applicants. Best Colleges has some great advice on things students can do to level up their soft skills and be more employable: 

  • Engage with their schools’ career services. Do it early and check in often, so they can get help turning their experiences into competitive applications in your field.
  • Practice selling their capabilities with mock interviews. It will help them feel less anxious and more confident.
  • Shadow someone in their field. Pay attention to both the technical skills and the soft skills they see that person using.
  • Find a mentor. Many colleges or universities offer mentorship programs to help students find someone to learn from, either professionally or within the academic environment. 

We also recommend students find opportunities to study core competencies, no matter what their major is. Accredited certificate programs like Franklin Covey’s LeaderU provide students with the chance to focus on key competencies like career development, communication, critical thinking, equity and inclusion, teamwork, and professionalism. 

Programs like LeaderU that provide powerful, flexible content and a certificate of completion will show employers students are overwhelmingly as dedicated to their soft skills as they are to their technical degree. Ultimately, that’s what employers are looking for—new grads who are working to improve their knowledge across the board, with the evidence to back up their enthusiasm.  


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