Last week, college students- freshmen through PhDs- embarked on yet another semester of working toward graduation. But to what end? How will they benefit from a college degree? Simultaneously, how will our economy benefit from having college graduates in the workforce? Economically, the question of why individuals choose specific skill sets is important to ask when considering workforce development and economic growth in a region. Employers demand certain skill sets for the jobs they are trying to fill and college graduates need jobs to pay for their mounting student loans. Despite the lower unemployment rates among college graduates, there remains a mismatch between what job skills employers need and what students “want” to select as majors. Employers remain desperate and scrambling for individuals with the skill sets needed to fill job openings and allow employers to grow their businesses.
As part of my work with Fourth Economy Consulting, I was asked to design and conduct a survey of current and potential college students. Because I am deeply interested in workforce development, I included a few questions of personal interest in an attempt to uncover the answers. If a person indicated that they were enrolled in college, I asked the question: “Why did you select your current major?” With seven pre-defined answer choices as well as a space for respondents to leave comments in case none of the answer choices fit, a surprising 46.5 percent selected the answer choice “This is what I have always wanted to do.” My initial response was: Is that really why most students choose their major or is that what they answer on a survey because the truth is too embarrassing to admit? All of the back-to-school blogs I have been reading on why college degrees matter (or do not matter), what students do (or do not do) with their degrees, how many students change their major, and how many graduates cannot find jobs, I find it hard to believe that 46.5 percent of college students are choosing majors based on what they have always wanted to do.
In the same survey, business owners and managers were asked if their organization was currently experiencing a lack of employees with the necessary skills to grow their businesses. Of the 106 business managers and owners surveyed, 43.4 percent said that their businesses were currently unable to thrive due to a shortage in skilled employees. While less than 50 percent, it is staggering to think that so many employers do not have the talent they need to grow their businesses to their full economic potential.
So I am left questioning why the gap actually occurs between what students study in school and what employers need in the workplace. However, my intuition has always led me to colleges and universities for answers. In turn, like many interested in workforce development, I assumed that proper training for students was not being adequately offered and that by simply adjusting course offerings and encouraging students to engage in specific courses the gap between what students want to study and the skills employers need would diminish.
However, the same survey offered contradictions to those beliefs. A different subset of students, those who were not currently enrolled in college but planned to enroll, were asked the question: “Are you interested in receiving advice on selecting a major based on the current economic needs of the industries in your area?” A jaw-dropping 53.2 percent responded ‘No’. Incredibly that means that over half of this subset of respondents (47 total) were not interested in the needs of employers when selecting a major! When constructing this question, I was sure the respondents would overwhelmingly be interested in pursuing a degree program that would lead to future employment after graduation. I held the firm belief that if career counselors took more time to explain the economic trends in their region that more students would study majors that directly led to employment. However, when asked, potential students said this was not, in fact, their primary motivator.
I make the assumption that most students who go to college would appreciate jobs when they graduate so I continued to research the survey responses looking for answers. One potential place to look was the second reason current college students chose their current major (they were allowed to select two reasons). The second most selected reason selected by survey respondents (44.2 percent) was “[this major] was the best fit for my skill set.” This response indicates that students evaluate their current skill sets, then choose a major based on what they feel best meets those current skills. This would indicate that a student’s inability to meet the skill sets needed by employers upon graduation begins with that student’s personal examination of their skills and abilities. Whether real or imagined, students may believe that they cannot handle the more challenging majors and subsequently the more demanding jobs or perhaps they believe that they will be hired by an employer regardless of their major in college. It appears that college students select majors they believe they can successfully complete.
In turn, perhaps workforce development begins with skills obtained long before a major is declared. High school and college counselors need to more thoroughly discuss with students and their parents the skill sets that should be developed early so that students will have more choices when it is time to select a major. When examining their current skill set, students should be prepared and ready to tackle any major including, but not limited to, sciences, technology, engineering, math, and other skills that employers need to improve the state of American businesses. Moreover, rather than choosing a major based solely on current likes and skill sets, students need to look more toward their future growth, personally and professionally. Such growth will directly lead to more jobs and a bigger, more productive American economy—something that will benefit everyone.