A return to liberal arts

Employers seek broadly educated, better thinking graduates

Some employers today are not happy with the quality of college graduates who show up on their doorsteps.

They say the college graduates usually possess the technical skills they need to land a job but that they are ill-prepared for what happens to them after that. What employers would like to see are more creative thinkers and better communicators.

That’s the conclusion of a survey of 318 chief executives by the Association for American College and Universities. Seventy-four percent of CEOs say they would recommend a 21st Century education that is broader in scope.

Technical skills are necessary, they say, but so is the ability to solve problems, think creatively and be innovative once graduates have a job.

Most of the time, it’s probably not a sound practice to allow employers to make demands of how universities teach. This time, though, it is good advice. The skills they are proposing are unlike technical skills, which have limitations. These skills have no limits and are transferable throughout a lifetime.

The point of a college education is not to prepare you for a job, but to give you the skills that you need to live a better life. Getting a better job is only part of that equation.

The CEOs in this study found three areas they would like to see college graduates have stronger foundations.

The first is that they want graduates to be able to demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity. Ninety-six percent ranked this an important decision in hiring, and 76 percent called it very important.

The second is to possess the inter-cultural skills necessary to deal with colleagues, customers and clients from diverse backgrounds. Again, 96 percent ranked it important while 63 percent said it was very important.

The third is to have a commitment to professional development and lifelong learning. Ninety-four percent said this is important in the hiring decision while 61 percent said it very important.

This survey is important because it is a step forward in thinking by business.

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a decided run-up in the number of students who were looking for “marketable” skills in college. This often meant learn skills employers sought the most. Employers were rewarded with fresh entry workers who had the technical skills the employers sought.

That led to a downturn in the number of students seeking liberal arts degrees, or those that are decidedly less “marketable.”

Yet that skill advantage dulled over the years as technology advanced. Many of those talented young workers found themselves unable to achieve success as their jobs evolved.

The view of these chief executives is important. It shows an enlightened approach to the future and shows that employers may once again be seeking long-term workers. With background skills in problem solving, communication, and understanding cultural differences in a worldwide economic system these workers are more likely to be able to handle future changes in the workplace.

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