The Skills Gap: Employers Expect More Than What College Grads Offer

National surveys have consistently found that businesses have difficulty finding employees with the right skills. Even among college graduates searching for work, employers have found them lacking employable skills. Research that examines how college graduates transition into the workforce has intensified since the 1990s when researchers connected graduates’ career success with the quality of their education. Thus, improving graduates’ employability became a subject that was gaining attention.

The needs in the labor market have been changing due to technological advances and economic globalization, which created uncertainties about which skills college graduates needed for the workforce. There became a need to revisit what four-year colleges and universities are teaching students and what students are learning to be adequately prepared to enter the workforce.

In 2016, I conducted a research study, An Examination of Perceived Employability Skills between Employers and College Graduates, that compared how employers perceived the employability skills of college graduates and how college graduates perceived their own skills. I found that there is a significant gap between what employers expect of their new hires and what college graduates can offer.

Using the Department of Education’s framework, employability skills are general skills used in the labor market by workers across experience levels and job types. The framework comprises nine key skills which fall into three broad categories and includes 39 identifying skills:

  1. applied knowledge which includes applied academic skills and critical thinking skills;
  2. effective relationships, which include interpersonal skills and personal qualities, and
  3. workplace skills including technology use, systems thinking, communication skills, information use, and resources management.


I created two surveys to identify and measure the discrepancies between these skills that employers desired and the self-perceptions of college graduates about their acquired skills. The surveys were sent during May and June 2016 to two groups: employers and graduating college seniors.

The employer group was a sample of small, medium, and large corporations with offices in Charlotte, North Carolina, who were asked which skills of newly graduated college students they desired most. The most responses came from the manufacturing and professional/technology services industries.

The student survey was sent to graduating seniors at one large four-year public research university, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, as they prepared to graduate and enter the workforce.

Employers were asked about the attributes that prospective employees at their businesses would need, rated on a five-category scale from unimportant to very important. Equivalently, students were asked to rate themselves as to their perceptions of having the skills needed in the workforce on a five-category scale from very low to very high. There were also questions asked to gather demographic information and an open-ended question on both surveys which allowed respondents to include their own opinion about skills sets the employers were looking for and students’ perception of their preparedness for the workforce.

The disparities between employers’ expectations and students’ self-assessments were significant. It became evident that employers had high expectations of job skills needed when interviewing graduates for a job and students felt under-prepared by their college education. Gaps persisted between employers and students on basic skills, communication skills, interpersonal skills, personal qualities, technology use, and thinking skills. The facts gleaned from the survey point to one concerning conclusion: colleges are not succeeding at imparting their graduates with an array of skills that employers demand of prospective workers.

The two tables below show the mean ranking of skills that were included in both employers’ and students’ surveys. The standard deviation is a measure of the difference in responses around the mean. The students were asked, “to what extent do you perceive you have acquired the following skill set?” and the employers were asked, “to what extent is each of the following skill set important in the hiring of college graduates?”

Information Use Skills

Student Employer
Question Mean Standard Deviation Mean Standard Deviation
Analyzing information 4.07 0.78 4.15 0.72
Locating information 4.10 0.88 4.22 0.68
Organizing information 4.17 0.79 4.27 0.66
Using information 4.19 0.80 4.54 0.55


Interpersonal Skills

Student Employer
Question Mean Standard Deviation Mean Standard Deviation
Exercising leadership 4.00 0.80 3.98 0.56
Negotiating to resolve conflict 3.83 0.79 3.91 0.88
Respecting individual differences
4.37 0.72 4.45 0.74
Responding to customer needs 4.07 1.05 4.69 0.52
Understanding teams and working with others  









Colleges and universities need to be aware of this perception disparity and implement reforms that will inform graduates of employer expectations and teach them the skills necessary to succeed. There are three prime entities involved in implementing change in public education: (1) the higher education institutions who prepare students to enter the workforce, (2) the employers who hire college graduates, and (3) education policymakers.

Connecting a college education to a career has been one of the goals of higher education since the 1636 founding of Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. If, in fact, connecting college to career continues to be one of the goals of higher education, then this study points to the need to revisit how students are prepared in college to transition into the workforce. As it stands, graduates are not aware of the skills they lack and what employers expect of them. Higher education institutions need to be more accountable for results in the preparation of their students for the workforce. Perhaps there is a need to strengthen the college curriculum to enable students to feel more competent and confident. That could mean requiring meaningful internships prior to graduation as well as a foreign language requirement. Perhaps, state and federal funding should be tied to the workforce success of graduates.

In summary, this research study is directed at increasing the existing levels of knowledge among employers, higher education institutions, and policymakers on what skill sets are needed by college graduates from four-year postsecondary institutions to be successfully employed in the workforce and beyond. Networking with a call to action with those three entities primarily involved in implementing change in public education will be the first step. College leaders, employers, and policymakers need to acknowledge the problem and find ways to collaborate or improve their methods. Facing this skills gap problem head-on, college students may find better jobs and employers may find better workers all while improving the higher education system.