The 4 Missing Skills Among Entry-Level Workers
April 28, 2017 by Bill Rosenthal

Mortimer J. Adler, who later co-founded the Great Books course that profoundly influenced liberal education in the 1950s, completed Columbia University’s four-year baccalaureate program in three years. But the University did not let him graduate because he didn’t take the required swimming test.

We generally assume that educational requirements should match workplace needs. That doesn’t seem be the case for all colleges and universities. Nobody but a lifeguard needs swimming skills for their work. How well are colleges and universities preparing non-lifeguards for the modern workplace?

Payscale, an organization that uses crowdsourcing and big data to help employers and employees determine fair compensation, surveyed 63,924 managers on their views of the skills of recent college graduates entering the workforce. They found high demands for a number of interesting technical skills in different industries and regions. But they also found general skills in short supply among all those entering the workforce right now. 

Go to the Payscale site for the full list. I just wanted to discuss the hard skills identified by more than one third of the responding managers: 

  • Writing proficiency (44%)
  • Public speaking (39%)
  • Data analysis (36%)
  • Industry-specific software (34%)

(Parenthetically, there were also six “soft” skills that were identified by more than one third of the managers: Critical thinking/problem solving (60%), Attention to detail (56%), Communication (46%), Ownership (44%), Leadership (44%), and Interpersonal skills/teamwork (36%). I think there’s a lot of subjectivity and fuzzy thinking in the soft-skills list. “Attention to detail” and “ownership” sound more like personal qualities or attitudes than skills. But it doesn’t surprise me that the list leans heavily toward communication skills.)

You can’t fault colleges for failing to teach industry-specific software, which changes rapidly and constantly. And big data is a new thing, so the colleges are probably still trying to catch up with data analysis skills. But they certainly ought to be teaching writing and public speaking skills, which haven’t changed much in the past thousand years. On the other hand, a Google search for “writing requirement college graduation” (1,910,000 hits) and one for “public speaking requirement college graduation” (2,690,000 hits) suggest that they’re trying.

I’m just speculating, but I imagine the problem is that when you institute a graduation requirement that everybody has to meet, then you have to also institute giant, impersonal classes that everybody has to take and nobody wants to teach. Big, impersonal classes are suitable for imparting information, but they aren’t an effective venue for teaching skills. We have found at Communispond that writing and speaking skills are best taught in classes with no more than a dozen students per instructor and that most of the class time should be devoted to practicing the skills with immediate feedback on performance. 

If you’re a hiring manager disappointed with candidates’ writing and speaking skills, please bear in mind that Communispond is here to help take up the slack with Write Up Front®, Executive Presentation Skills®, and EPS Anywhere™.

There’s a footnote to the swimming requirement. Sixty years after he failed to graduate, Mortimer J. Adler — having written more than 30 books and gained a Ph.D. — wrote to Columbia, saying he had since learned how to swim and requesting a waiver of the swimming requirement. Columbia granted the waiver and Adler received his bachelor’s degree in 1983.