What Do Employers Want?

A student at UNC-Chapel Hill recently asked me to comment on a survey of employers that had been featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education. She suggested that perhaps the Board of Governors is giving too much emphasis to technical skills when, she said, “employers value good communication skills over specific technical skills when hiring.”

I responded:

During my 17 years of practicing law and my over 20 years running consumer-facing businesses I learned a number of things about survey data. The key is to read the actual survey and not trust the accuracy of anyone’s report of what it says or shows. Even the most honest and neutral summary can be frequently misleading because it is seen through the prism of the commentator’s experience and beliefs. One needs to look at how the questions are phrased to see if they might direct or bias the answers and to look at the verbatims to really understand what was meant by the responses.

In this case such a review shows employers were not saying they did not want or value technical training or abilities. Rather they said that such abilities alone were not what they wanted to see in the most sought-after employees. For example, 63 percent of business leaders surveyed wanted college graduates to have more communications, writing and critical thinking skills, while 55 percent wanted more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees. Clearly, most employers wanted both!

The survey shows that employers value candidates who can, first, think critically and creatively to identify and solve problems and who then can communicate this information. They prefer these candidates over ones who have nothing but technical expertise without critical thinking or communication ability. However, they greatly prefer people who have critical thinking, technical and communication skills, and job-related training.

A couple of points here. First, while I highly value having a good background in liberal arts, you don’t have to have a liberal arts background to think critically and creatively. Indeed, some liberal arts majors, such as mine (English) do little to foster this most valued ability, while some technical majors actually emphasize this ability. So you should not read my comments as endorsing liberal arts over STEM courses. Neither my comments nor those of the employers endorse either type of curriculum as superior for fostering this attribute.

Second, a baccalaureate degree in a STEM subject requires a number of liberal arts courses. So read the survey as saying employers prefer a baccalaureate degree that emphasizes critical thinking, teaches communication skills, and teaches applicable skill knowledge—all of this above a degree, such as an associate’s degree, that teaches only the technical skills.

As one who has employed thousands of people, I can tell you that what employers look for has changed over time. Forty years ago when I graduated with an A.B. in English, employers were looking for someone with a baccalaureate degree who was apparently intelligent, well-spoken and interviewed well. The employer expected to train the new employee in the basics of the new job. Some academic or practical experience in job-related disciplines was a plus, but not essential.

Today an employer at a minimum wants job-related skills or training, plus critical thinking and communication abilities. In many cases, employers will not be satisfied with even this combination and want to see some actual experience in the field.

The reason for the change is twofold. First, in an increasingly competitive business environment, employers cannot afford lengthy, non-productive training periods. Second, they can find plenty of people looking for jobs who meet their heightened criteria. The rise in “unpaid internships,” something unheard of a decade ago, is a direct result of these heightened employer requirements. So if we are to prepare our students for the maximum opportunities we must train them in job-related skills and knowledge, as well as critical thinking and communication ability—all three are important.

As a  member of the UNC Board of Governors, my concerns center on what is best for the long-term well-being of our students and what is best for the well- being of the state and its people. Several factors intertwine here. These include, but are not limited to: (1) the troubling and, to some of us, unjustified tuition increases over recent years; (2) the increasing difficulty of graduating in four years; (3) the very troubling increase in debt load our graduates leave with, which can impact them negatively for years; and (4) the increasingly challenging job market.

With all of this in mind, the Board of Governors is attempting to find a pathway that will graduate students with the background that maximizes their chances of having the very kind of meaningful employment that leads to financial independence, a healthy future, and the community involvement that all of us believe should be the ultimate goal of the university. That background must include the critical thinking ability that grows in an environment where all points of view are welcomed and all are subject to challenge. From that crucible comes true enlightenment, true knowledge. That involves a combination of skills that we worry are not being provided right now.

And our policies should accomplish that while leaving the minimum future burden on our students. Not one of us believes that liberal arts are unimportant. Learning to read, write, and communicate in many forms is essential to having upward mobility in employment. However, in a changed world, those things alone do not maximize opportunity. 

On a personal note, my brother, retired Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, and I are products of the public schools and universities of this state. Without the opportunities for learning they gave to us, we could not have enjoyed the rewarding careers we were fortunate enough to experience. These opportunities were provided by the generosity of generations of Tar Heels who went before us. Our desire is to see that every student has the same opportunities. What that student makes of the opportunity is up to the individual.

I apologize for the length of this response. However, you asked a vital question which does not have a “sound bite” answer. Yet if we allow the difficulty of finding a good answer or a desire for the quick, easy one to turn us from struggling to get this “right,” we will be failing in our obligation, failing in fulfilling our debt to those who built the system we serve and from which we so benefited, and failing the students whose opportunities we are trying to improve.

Best, Champ Mitchell