The Talent Gap: College Grads Are Not Getting the Skills Employers Want


About a third of all jobs in America require a college degree. Large numbers of people are going to college — over 23 million will be enrolled in college by 2020 — but there’s a big gap between what they’re learning and what employers want. A recently published study finds that many college grads lack skills that employers consider critical, such as problem solving and decision making.

The study, from Hart Research Associates, surveyed 400 employers and focused on skills needed for career success. The skills considered most important included written and oral communication, teamwork, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings. Almost all employers agreed that more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major was the demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems. Interestingly, the study also showed that contrary to conventional wisdom, skills considered not very important by employers (but rated high by students) included awareness of diversity and languages other than English.

The Gap

Every recruiter has met the candidate whose assessment of themselves is at odds with the reality.What the Hart study reveals is that among college grads the problem is endemic. In just about every category of skills considered important by employers, the majority of graduates rated themselves as well prepared, while only a minority of employers saw it the same way. This gap becomes most apparent when it comes to hiring recent grads. Eighty percent of employers consider it very important that recent college graduates demonstrate the ability to apply learning in real-world settings during the hiring process. But only 23 percent of employers report that grads are able to do so.

In an interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock — who heads up all hiring at Google — had this advice for college grads about what to say during an interview. “What you want to do is say: ‘Here’s the attribute I’m going to demonstrate; here’s the story demonstrating it; here’s how that story demonstrated that attribute.’ And here is how it can create value.”

The story demonstrating how to create value can only be told if one has had an actual experience where they got to use their learning. That could be a classroom project, but the experience most valued by employers, as a demonstration of applied learning, is an internship.

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Trouble is that an internship is fairly rare experience. Data from NACE — the National Association of Colleges and Employers — shows that in recent years about 1.5 million internships are filled in the United States annually. That means less than 10 percent of college grads get to do an internship. And among internships it’s paid internships that matter. NACE also reports that while 63 percent of students with a paid internship received at least one job offer, only 37 percent of former unpaid interns did so. Unpaid internships may become less common, as class action lawsuits are being brought against employers and colleges crack down on the practice.

Improving College Education

The majority (70 percent ) of employers think that students should be required to complete an applied-learning project as a condition of graduation. That’s a more practical solution than finding internships, since it’s largely within the control of colleges. But the internship remains the most valued experience. Most employers agree that a recent graduate’s completion of various other types of applied and engaged learning experiences — such as a comprehensive senior project, a collaborative research project, or a community based or service learning project — would also positively influence their hiring decision. However, these all rank behind an internship (or apprenticeship) in their ability to influence hiring decisions.


image from Shutterstock

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.


10 Comments on “The Talent Gap: College Grads Are Not Getting the Skills Employers Want

  1. There is no talent gap, there are some specific areas with specific issues. The skills gap employers constantly complain about disappears at the national level, and usually disappears locally when they pay decent wages and invest a bit in training. Schools are not there to teach people how to be a good employee at Company X, which is different than being a good employee at Company Y. Expecting schools to spit out perfectly seasoned employees ready to hit the ground running is assinine, did the employers polled understand the concept of entry level jobs, or has the situation gotten so bad that now you can’t even get an entry level job at McDonald’s without already having ten years burger flipping experience?

    “Eighty percent of employers consider it very important that recent college graduates demonstrate the ability to apply learning in real-world settings during the hiring process. But only 23 percent of employers report that grads are able to do so.”

    Really? How did they measure that? Or, as I suspect, were they hunting for white elephants and just assumed all their judgements about the ones they didn’t hire were spot on?

    The recruiting and HR profession needs to put a break on this nonsense soon or we’re all going to get a nice regulatory beating from the government for these moronic shenanigans, and well deserved too, to be honest. People are over worked, burned out, they get no PTO, they increasingly don’t get paid overtime despite working 50, 60, and 70 hour weeks. There’s going to be a breaking point and our profession can not sit on the sidelines like bunch of corporate kiss-asses and not call out companies on their BS or we will be on the wrong side of history.

    1. What about the expectation of the learner? Spending 10s of thousands of dollars expecting to develop skills and knowledge that will deliver them a meaningful career opportunity. Both sides have a responsibility. Academia and companies have to work together earlier on in the process to allow learners the opportunity to practice what they are learning and get the experience they need to be better prepared to walk into the world of work. The education side is the one getting paid for the process so they have a greater responsibility in the process to deliver what their customer, the student, needs to succeed in their next stage of life.

      1. There are several reasons why this won’t work. One, no educational institution can possibly prepare someone for a specific job at a specific company within a specific industry when standards, processes, company structures, time lines, expectations, etc., differ so wildly. Two companies making essentially the same product can go about it in vastly different ways specific to their own backgrounds and development, and they are the ones who have to train for that. Schools by necessity need to teach people at a more general level, that is skills you can use almost anywhere in an industry. They teach people to be engineers, not Engineer Level II – Industrial Electrical – Field I, for Bob’s Tenant Fit Out Company.

        Two, almost no one ends up actually in the field they got their degree in. Significant numbers of people go to school for subject X, and end up doing something else where their education is applicable, but not directly on target. There are many reasons for this, but the reality is no 18 year old ever really has a clue how they want to spend the rest of their lives. Yeah, sure, some do. Most don’t. These days, a lot of them are in college for the simple reason that it was ‘expected’ of them. If I had my life to do over, I would have been a welder, instead I went to school to be a teacher and ended up a recruiter.

        Three, academia is already more than happy to get involved with businesses to help get kids more skills. They’ve shown it again and again. Businesses are the ones who cratered their training budgets and basically turned into the people from Wall-E; fat, bloated, overly cared for and catered to by both government and the HR/Recruiting industry, such that they expect everything delivered to them gift wrapped and read to go with a side of cheese sauce and gravy fries.

        The complaint of businesses essentially boils down to a mix of “kids today” BS, which has been ever present from every older generation, and ever wrong, and their mistaken belief that they shouldn’t need to invest in people to make them better. They have no problem with customizing a machine to make it work better on a production line, and no problem maintaining equipment to maximize its useful life, but refuse to do anything comparable for their employees. That means, as demonstrated by their actions, people are worth less to them than their capital equipment. To me, that indicates fairly conclusively that the root cause of these problems is on employers. Maybe if they stopped viewing their employees as disposable at best, they might take a different approach to training.

        1. Well said, Kevin!
          A new model you might be personally aware of is, which caters to building the specific skills industry leaders require of their new employees. The models are created through collaborative efforts between the university and the companies, and positions are open for graduates.
          You could very well say that the training is similar to a technical college degree for mechanics or other hands-on industry, yet this one focuses primarily on computer sciences.

      2. You are right in that the academic institutions get the money but that does not mean they “feel” the responsibility to deliver the full packaged product ready for the market. In business school for instance, who are the customers? Are they the students or are the students the products? It should be the employers who pony show their booths every fall hoping to unite the perfect candidate with the perfect culture. Sounds like the perfect fairy tale strategy and quite similar to the ones I have read to my kids before bedtime. Employers who really and truly scout their talent at early stages of the game will win while those who sit idly on waiting for the show to begin will waste time and money, call the skills gap a crisis and write white paper after white paper and give economists and consultants headline stories for years to come. Makes for interesting reading though…

  2. The gap of which much is spoken with no end in sight.
    Regarding college recruiting, we should not be surprised to learn about the wide chasm that exists between academic outcomes and employer needs. Employers rely too much on academic institutions and evidence of that is the ever present tendency to think that they can get to know and select the right candidates at the career fair and associated college recruiting events just prior to graduation.
    I believe that employers get in the game too late to make any real headway on closing any gap if any exists. Apprenticeships are great but could we get involved even earlier in the game to identify prospects for the future?
    To what extent can employers close their end of the gap by getting more involved at earlier stages of student development?

    1. Quite a bit, but all evidence suggests they don’t want to do it. Apprenticeships and investment in training are nonexistent at most companies. As always, companies want a complete and total package delivered to them, with no training or investment necessary, and at minimal to no cost in terms of salaries. Entry level people should just show up one day knowing anything and everything necessary to thrive in a given industry and a specific company. Which is the attitude you get when employees are treated like worthless commodities to be used, abused, and thrown away and replaced when they’re burned out.

  3. I doubt that any employer expects a college grad to have the exact requirements for a specific job. However, it’s not unreasonable to expect someone with a college should have a core set of skills necessary for success in the workplace. A recent report based on tests administered to 32,000 college
    students by the Council for Aid to Education found that about 40% lacked the complex reasoning skills for white-collar work. That is, they are unable to read a scatter plot, construct a cohesive argument or identify a logical fallacy. These are the same type of skills evaluated in the Hart study cited in my
    article – skills such as being able to communicate effectively, critical thinking, evaluate information, etc. These are not job specific requirements and it would be unreasonable to expect an employer to provide the training to teach anyone such skills.

    There may be a wider case to be made that the higher education system in general needs reform, but the fact remains that employers are not finding people with skills that are needed for increasingly complex work.

  4. Colleges and universities should focus less on near-pointless electives to better focus on the actual major, including practical workplace skills and must-haves.

  5. The data used in this article is fundamentally flawed. NACE reports only data voluntarily reported to it by its hundreds of mostly very large employer members. You can’t properly equate their numbers as being the same or even close to the number of internships offered by all employers.

    The truth is that about 75 percent of post-secondary students graduate with AT LEAST one internship. See

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