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APLU Releases Two Reports on Gaps in Employability Skills and Workforce Preparedness Among College Graduates

More than 11,000 Employers, Faculty, Alumni, & Students Were Part of the Survey Examining 11 Critical Growth Areas for Students Today

Washington, DC – The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) today released two reports on the results of a comprehensive survey of employers, faculty, alumni, and students that explored the top employability skills preparedness gaps among college graduates. The two reports are designed to help provide universities with data-driven insights on employers’ needs that administrators and faculty could consider when changing or updating academic programs.

Led by administrators in colleges of agriculture, the APLU reports examined specific employability skills—the nontechnical skills used every day in the workforce to ensure the smooth operation of projects and offices. More than 11,000 employers, faculty, alumni, and students answered a survey consisting of two parts: 1) stakeholders were asked to rate the importance of 11 specific employability skills, how prepared students were in that skill, and rank what activities outside the classroom most contributed to learning these skills; and 2) answer four open-ended questions around how to better prepare students for navigating ambiguity, change, persistence, and conflict in the workplace.

From Academia to the Workforce: Critical Growth Areas for Students Today focuses on the quantitative data analysis, while From Academia to the Workforce: Navigating Persistence, Ambiguity, Change and Conflict in the Workplace is a qualitative analysis of the open-ended survey questions. Both reports and an executive summary are part of the APLU series on employability skills in agriculture and natural resources.

A 2011 APLU survey identified 42 employability skills that are most important to the four groups. Of those critical growth areas, 11 skills had the largest gaps between how respondents rated the importance of a skill versus how prepared they thought new graduates are in that skill. The other 31 skills were not chosen for further study because there was a smaller gap in what employers need and what universities are delivering—a sign that universities are on the right track. APLU fielded this latest survey in 2018-2019 through 31 participating universities and partner organizations to focus solely on the 11 skills where the preparedness gap was largest.

The 11 skills gaps the survey questions focused on were:

  1. Recognize and deal constructively with conflict
  2. Build professional relationships
  3. Accept critique and direction in the workplace
  4. Understand role, realistic career expectations
  5. Deal effectively with ambiguity and navigate change
  6. Identify and analyze problems
  7. Realize the effect of decisions
  8. Transfer knowledge across situations
  9. Listen effectively
  10. Communicate accurately and concisely
  11. Ask good questions

“Public universities are committed to providing students with the skills that will set them up for a lifetime of learning experiences. The employability skills identified in these reports are part of that mission,” said Wendy Fink, director of Food, Agriculture & Natural Resources, executive director of the BAA Academic Programs Section, and a co-principal investigator of the project and author of the reports. “It is notable that this research is being driven by these colleges so they can ensure their academic programs are better developing the skills needed in the workplace.”

Key findings from qualitative report, Navigating Persistence, Ambiguity, Change, and Conflict in the Workplace report include:

  • Conflict: Academic programs can teach students to break the conflict taboo by teaching people to open conversations, allowing students the opportunity to practice this skill, and helping them build the emotional intelligence to navigate conflict.
  • Persistence: Managing expectations of the first job out of college is critical for helping students build persistence. That, along with understanding that failure is a growth opportunity and building the professional and social skills for adult life, will encourage new graduates to persist in the workplace. Academic programs can be structured to help students learn career paths and develop lifelong learning skills.
  • Change: Teaching students to accept that change is the norm is essential. Their foundational knowledge in the discipline provides them with the skills to be an adaptable learner. Cultivating independent thinking can be achieved through stretch experiences that move students out of their comfort zone.
  • Ambiguity: New employees can find the lack of specific direction in the work environment ambiguous. While ambiguity is a normal part of life and work, simple skills such as listening, asking questions, maintaining a positive attitude and utilizing creative thinking help manage ambiguity. Teaching students how to listen effectively, ask the right questions to clarify a situation, frame the problem, think creatively about the problem, make decisions with incomplete information, and be able to defend their thinking and actions likely would be helpful. Further, students would benefit from understanding that this entire cycle of problem-solving must be repeated over and over in a work environment.

“Crucially, most faculty at the public universities in the study believe all these skills could be incorporated into academic programs and extracurricular activities,” said Pat Crawford, director, School of Design, College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, South Dakota State University, and a co-principal investigator of the project and author of the reports. “We can teach these skills.”

While the study was primarily focused on stakeholders from colleges of agriculture and natural resources, the skills and insights from the responses are not limited to agricultural programs. Employers in the survey represented industries beyond those traditionally associated with agriculture and natural resources and the skills examined are applicable to virtually all fields.

Key findings from the quantitative study Critical Growth Areas for Students Today report include:

  • The only skill in the top three for all stakeholder groups (employers, faculty, alumni, and students) is “recognize and deal constructively with conflict” in the workplace. This may connect with the differing sense between employers and employees of the role of a new employee in the workplace.
  • For employers, the top three skills with the largest preparedness gap are: understanding role and realistic career expectations; recognizing and dealing constructively with conflict; and accepting critique and direction in the workplace.
  • Employers and students have different views on what is the largest skill gap. Employers largest skill gap is “understanding role and expectation in the workplace,” whereas students rank “build professional relationships” as their number one area for improvement. This difference could open the door to conflicts between the two groups but could also offer opportunities for both students and employers to put their best foot forward.
  • Employers and faculty identify the same top eight activities (listed below) as important for developing employability these 11 employability skills. Employers are looking for these activities on resumes, and faculty feel these activities build employability skills. Many students and alumni report engaging in these activities while they are in college. Activities identified as useful in building skills are work; internships; career or major related student organization; volunteerism; research with a mentor; international travel of any kind; varsity and club or intramural sports; and judging or competitive events.
  • There is a disconnect in the priorities of employers and faculty. The top three skills gaps for Faculty, (1. Recognize and Deal Constructively with Conflict, 2. Communicate Accurately and Concisely, and 3. Accept and Apply Critique and Direction in the Workplace) were in the Top 5 for employers. But for the top three skills with gaps for employers only Accept and Apply Critique and Direction in the Workplace made the Top 5 for faculty. The reason this is important is that faculty may teach to the skills they perceive have the largest gaps.
  • Alumni, students, and faculty had a higher mean importance-preparedness gap than employers for navigating change and ambiguity. Likely, this may be driven by the level of control that employers have over the business or organization decisions versus the control that new or even older existing employees may have in their own work environment.

APLU’s Academic Programs Section (APS) commissioned the series of reports. APS is a section of the Board on Agriculture Assembly, a national organization of public university colleges of agriculture that is part of APLU. AgCareers.com, Agriculture Future of America, and the National FFA Organization helped create and distribute the survey. Additionally, an article on the survey results has been accepted for publication in the journal from the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture and will be published soon.

For more information, visit www.aplu.org/employability-skills

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