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Employment of college graduates has been far from a sure thing in recent years, with some placing the blame on higher education’s failure to prepare students for the marketplace. But, some institutions are collaborating with potential employers to improve placement numbers.

By David Rupp

Despite the U.S. economy showing marked improve-ment in recent months, and the stock market scoring day-after-day historic heights at year's end, the unemployment rate for workers 25 years or younger remained at nearly twice that of the general population. The 2014 Federal Reserve Bank report, Are Recent College Graduates Finding Good Jobs? revealed that, for the period 1990 through the first quarter of 2013, "the unemployment rate averaged 4.3 percent for recent college graduates compared with 2.9 percent for all college graduates." 

The study also found that underemployment for new graduates—defined as working in jobs that do not require a college degree—increased to roughly
44 percent by 2012. That number compares to 34 percent in 2001.

With a Gallup poll in late 2013 (conducted on behalf of the Lumina Foundation) showing that business leaders have doubts that higher education institutions in the United States are graduating students who meet their particular business needs, it seems a major disconnect is in play.  

However, even as new graduates still struggle to find meaningful work, which for some will also help pay down burdensome student loan debt, many colleges are working smarter to ensure the successful career placement of their students. With increased pressure to show higher degree completion and job placement rates, institutions are turning to human resources and strategic planning experts for support in reaching these goals. 

One traditional method for matching graduates to jobs is to build relationships with corporate America, especially with the companies that do business on campus. Interviews with company representatives and leaders who have experience in evaluating and hiring recent college graduates provide some relevant perspectives for institution leaders who want to improve their placement numbers.

With increased pressure to show higher degree completion and job placement rates, institutions are turning to human resources and strategic planning experts for support in reaching these goals.

Engaging Prospective Candidates

The traditional methods of finding qualified candidates from graduating college classes still work well, according to the individuals interviewed for this article. Companies send recruiters to meet with career counseling offices, set up tables at campus job fairs, offer internships to promising students, and partner with professors to enhance the curriculum to better align with needed skills.

However, the ways in which companies decide where to focus their efforts often differ. With nearly 4,600 degree-granting institutions in the country, firms must plan their recruiting efforts judiciously. For example, it makes sense for companies that serve the higher education market to target campuses that are their clients. Job fairs and internships continue to provide important connections that can lead graduates to the right jobs—and companies to qualified employees.

Figuring out job fairs. "Accounting firms often hire from schools where their partners studied," says Scott Lurding, CEO of Altus Advisory Partners.  "Similarly, other companies maintain a relationship with the schools from which senior executives graduated."

Crowe Horwath LLP hires graduates from approximately 80 campuses, but the firm intends to narrow its focus to hire more students from a short list of strategic schools. "Historically we have identified key campuses for our recruiting efforts, and many of them relate to larger universities that have strong accounting programs and a long affiliation with our firm," says Cynthia Pierce, managing partner of the company's higher education practice. "But we are also engaged with a number of private not-for-profit schools that have strong accounting programs and have produced quality graduates. There is a short list, per se, given that it's impossible to cover grads from across the country, so we have to develop relationships that target the number of campuses we will visit."

Pierce says this process works. "Since we've focused our efforts and evolved our relationships with the placement folks and accounting faculty, we have very good success in attracting qualified candidates. I think that we're more connected with the campuses that we visit. That increases our success." 

This focus in recruiting is an economic necessity for companies. "You are trying to focus on the schools giving you the best results over time," says Lurding. "There's a big cost involved in recruiting, from managing the process, sending people to campus, and conducting interviews. I've interacted with multiple firms that try to find academic programs that produce good quality students, and then they really focus in those areas." 

Employer Wish List of Wanted Skills, Qualities

In interviews with a group of company leaders involved in recruiting recent graduates for their higher education-focused industries, the following skills and qualities topped the priority list.

  • The right attitude, a passion for the profession, the right fit for the company.
  • Communication skills, including listening to and influencing others.
  • Smarts and the ability to learn.
  • Patience.
  • Ability to manage multiple projects.
  • Honesty and integrity.
  • Time management.
  • Willingness to travel and relocate.
  • Technology skills.
  • Self-sufficiency.

Lurding cautions campus leaders, "If you can't differentiate your program from those of other schools, it may be viewed as a commodity or 'just another campus.' That increases the risk of not being included in future recruiting efforts, thus potentially reducing the institution's job placement numbers. But if the institution has a tight, collaborative relationship with recruiting companies, it reduces the risk that it will be cut from the list."

Colleges also need to keep an eye on the career success of their graduates, says Lurding. "Businesses are constantly tracking how the graduates from different universities perform," he says. "They will stop hiring from a university, if they experience poor results. If that's the case, it will take a lot of work to be able to place graduates into that company in the future. There's a very real impact when students are not performing."

Influential internships. Internship program leaders hope to identify the most promising students, while at the same time giving prospects the necessary experience to decide if they want to start a career with that company, or in that field.

GCA Services Group offers internships in administration as well as maintenance positions, based on the student's field of study and other interests. If interns discover that this isn't the company, or career, for them, "usually they will tell us if things are not working out," says Bernie Decker, vice president, human resources, education division of GCA. "But it's also time for us to do a little self-reflection. Maybe we didn't explain upfront what the position would entail. Maybe we didn't give good guidance as the person was engaged in the internship. We always try to conduct a postmortem review of those situations where it doesn't work out."

These days, often a single internship is not enough for a graduate looking to stand apart from the crowd. According to Stephanie Butler, senior vice president and head of global campus talent for Bank of America, "Typically we look for students who have had multiple internship experiences. We look at everything related to areas of study. We typically look for more graduates with business degrees. But we also look at liberal arts, because students are coming out with multifaceted experiences, whether it's global experiences, study abroad programs, or significant internships that show the evolution of how they've grown and who they are."

Sometimes the internship isn't the earliest contact between student and company. 

In an effort to begin the working relationship earlier, McGladrey offers a 10-week externship (one of the company's training programs) for sophomores and juniors, and these may lead to internships. "We look to put more resources into this," says Jennifer Busse, national and regional leader of talent acquisition for McGladrey, seeing the value of adding this stage to the hiring process. She prefers to hire graduates who interned with the company and in the same line of business.

Performance Reflects Preparation

Employee critiques of new graduates' skill sets and preferences can provide useful insight for colleges and universities when it comes to areas of improvement in preparing graduates to be job ready. 

  • Technological aptitude. "Young people have a very different perspective, especially when it comes to technology," says Diane Fennig, senior consultant of Human Capital Group. "Companies are pleasantly surprised by recent graduates' way of thinking about technology; it is a fresher perspective."

GCA's Decker notes: "The technical skills they have relied upon to get through college are what we need. They are computer savvy with their smart phones, iPads, or tablets. These are all things that are beneficial to us." For example, says Decker, "We have a proprietary software program that tracks all employee records, our financials, and our quality control systems, which are all automated. Someone who has appropriate skills and can be coached to transfer those skills to our various programs can find success at GCA."

Supported by technology tools, mobility has become an important characteristic for today's workers. "Our managers are very engaged in the job. They are typically going between locations. Otherwise, they are probably working from home. They must be able to access our systems from remote areas. Sometimes that requires someone who is pretty self-sufficient," says Decker.

  • Unfamiliarity with the etiquette for using technology in the workplace. Using the new technology can come with a downside. "We see a tendency for young adults to hide behind technology and they, at times, aren't as strong in personal communication," says Pierce. "A typical example is communicating with clients or co-workers by e-mail rather than by telephone or by personal contact. This is something we are coaching and encouraging, but we see that it is not natural behavior for some entry-level hires."

Technology continues to increase the frantic pace of life, but a recent graduate has no clue about the speed of living before these modern marvels existed. This blind spot can cause trouble when interacting with employers from different generations and with more deliberative expectations.

"People are accustomed to texting.  There is a time and place for texting, but this abbreviated writing style is not appropriate for business writing."

Butler reiterates this point. "Unfortun-ately, most of the students can certainly do anything as it pertains to technology, but sitting down and having a one-on-one over coffee, or preparing something for a meeting, is foreign to many of them. They are fantastic at texting. But you have to remind them that style doesn't translate in the workplace."

Patience vs. Deliberation

Technology continues to increase the frantic pace of life, but a recent graduate has no clue about the speed of living before these modern marvels existed. This blind spot can cause trouble when interacting with employers from different generations and with more deliberative expectations.

"They are used to having everything instantly," says Fennig. "They are on their smart phones getting the information. Sometimes, we need the benefit of more time." The new graduate/hire must understand why a decision takes longer to make than the time it takes to gather the related information, she stresses.

"Patience is a very important skill in our profession," says Decker. "And, while we have not seen a noticeable difference in the patience level of recent college graduates, we do have to remind them that it's often better to call a person rather than sending an e-mail or text message."

Impatience can take other forms as well. For example, says Busse, "Patience is an important practice in the workplace when it comes to demanding a better title or a promotion. It will come; but they need to learn that everything takes time. They must pay their dues."

  • Team-player mentality. Measuring the recent graduate's ability to communicate one-on-one and to work within a team ranks high for recruiters.

"Sometimes new recruits come in with good team experiences from their past and can translate those to the world of work," Fennig says. "I would love to see everyone who graduates have some kind of work experience. Then, at least they've been in an environment where they've seen what they like and don't like."

Crowe Horwath's Pierce adds, "We've observed candidates who have broader experience and are more 'worldly' than many of the graduates in earlier times. In other words, they may have completed multiple internships or taken advantage of activities or employment on campus that gives them a particular insight and a sense of being more knowledgeable of what it is we do in our profession."

Butler reports similar experiences with recent graduates. "The students have much more robust backgrounds and interests than what we saw 10 years ago. Then, it would have been more of a straight line—they graduate in business; they know they will do X, Y, and Z; they come in to do an internship; then they are hired. These new students have tried on lots of different things and have really taken a wide variety of courses, more than we would have seen in the tracks before."

Volunteer work has also grown into an important source of leadership and team experience, according to Fennig. "I'm amazed by some of the stories from these young people-about what they are doing, where they are volunteering, and how they are making a difference in their communities. This can be a neighborhood association or a social group or a community service group."

Bank of America's Butler sees similar activity. "Very rarely will I meet a student who hasn't done some significant type of volunteering. We see it on just about every resume. It tends to be a cause that goes on for more than just a year, such as fighting hunger," she notes. "That's exactly what we are looking for. The student's ability to problem solve and articulate and have thoughtful responses about those things is critical."

The Feedback Loop

The willingness of recent graduates to seek feedback early in their careers is as important as any changes made as a result of that kind of evaluation. The ability to respond positively to feedback suggests a person's strength of character, says Fennig.

Lacking industry experience, graduates often need to request information. "They ask some very good questions," says Fennig. "But, it's the way they ask them that can get them into trouble. They have to be respectful of how the system has been designed. The most successful young people ask the right questions, the right way," she says. 

Creative thinking, an artistic sense, and the ability to listen are but three examples of what employers seek, but that higher education often sidesteps, particularly in an environment of growing pressure for institutions to give priority to workplace preparation.

"Also, when a manager gives a new hire some feedback, the employee can have a hard time hearing this, because often the information is given verbally," Fennig explains. "In their academic work, perhaps they often received written feedback on their exams. They aren't accustomed to verbal feedback, except perhaps from a parent."

Busse agrees with that assessment. "They have to be ready for feedback, including critical feedback."

Most new employees are very receptive to coaching and feedback, as long as it's valid and gives them a basis for future actions, notes Butler. "Universities need to move toward providing students training in receiving in a positive way the coaching and feedback they'll undoubtedly hear, particularly in the age of social media," she says.

Learning the best way to give feedback is also a challenge for graduates. "We want people to be great problem solvers. Don't just come to me with a problem; come with a possible solution or two. That shows you've taken a good look at the situation," says Fennig.

Along those lines, GCA seeks employees "who can look you in the eye and engage in conversation with you. As a service company, we want their first instinct to be calling or visiting the person, rather than shooting them an e-mail, particularly if it's an uncomfortable topic. We try to impart our philosophy of the human connection vs. the technological connection," says Decker. 

Softer Skills Sometimes Lacking

The personal or subjective skills, often necessary to succeed, have been more difficult to find in newer graduates. Creative thinking, an artistic sense, and the ability to listen are but three examples of what employers seek, but that higher education often sidesteps, particularly in an environment of growing pressure for institutions to give priority to workplace preparation.  

Fennig lists some of the soft skills that new graduates must develop: practicing inclusive leadership, making effective presentations, offering compelling introductions, and figuring out ways to keep a conversation going. "They have to figure out how to bring a new idea or concept forward in an organization, paying attention to where the key players sit." 

Pierce says that the most important skill in public accounting is working with others and working with the public. "There are very few people who are employed to sit at a desk in front of a computer and not communicate with the public. To be effective in your role, you need people skills. There are very few individuals who could get by in our business for any length of time without people skills."

"I think the real issue is confidence," Pierce adds. "If you find the right profession and the right firm in the right place at the right time, all of those things align to give you a certain confidence."

The skills Decker seeks are the personal touch, honesty, integrity, ability to connect with people, resilience to get through obstacles, and the ability to manage multiple projects at the same time.  "I can't remember any time that this has changed. Nobody wants to deal with an engineer or IT person who doesn't have a certain amount of people skills."

Butler says, "At the MBA level, the graduates are excellent. Their ability to communicate and move from academic to corporate life has definitely been vetted. They are superior. The undergraduates haven't had the experience yet to prepare them for corporate life."

Work-Life Balance

"They bring a real different sense of work-life balance," says Fennig about how recent graduates prioritize between their career and leisure time.

"They have become very masterful of how to balance their lives, and of how technology can help them get things done faster."

Decker says, "Today's grads are more selective in their opportunities. I think they look for different things, particularly quality of life issues. Telecommuting, more paid time off and more money, satisfaction through their work in terms of feeling like they are contributing, and the ability to come and go as they please. Their expectations, and what they sense as rewarding out of their work environment, have changed, compared to new hires of 10 years ago."

There is much more structure in the professional environment than in the academic environment, notes Pierce, and that takes some adjustment. "Some don't care for it," she observes. "They leave the profession in part because of that structure. We look to be flexible to a certain degree and yet meet client commitments and put in the time necessary to get the job done. There are times you must work hard, and times you can play hard." 

Busse has noticed a similar attitude in McGladrey's hires with regard to work and play. "During busy season, we have client deadlines, and that could mean 50+ hours a week to get the work done. We encourage our employees to prioritize correctly and stay focused."

Bank of America helps its employees manage a work-life balance, while at the same time supporting shared goals of helping the community. "I hear more students asking about work-life balance and how they can still stay engaged and support outside interests and work," says Butler. "Bank of America does a lot of volunteer work, providing time off to our employees to support nonprofits in their communities."

Making the Culture Transition

"Every company has its own intricacies, its own culture. Every new hire walking into a new company has to understand the culture and how to be successful," says Fennig.

Properly transitioning the new graduate from the academic world to the very different corporate world is crucial. Professional development is a critical component to ensuring their success within this new environment.

Properly transitioning the new graduate from the academic world to the very different corporate world is crucial.

Bringing the new hire into the company takes work, especially with a recent graduate. "People think a daylong orientation is onboarding. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about working with the new hire for a few months," says Fennig about the process to acclimate a new employee to a workplace.

Fennig gives one obvious example of the transition. "Everyone needs to think about how they are perceived by how they dress, how they act, how they talk. People make snap judgments. Younger people don't always think about how they dress, but it matters." 

New grads must be equally aware of the generation already in the workforce, says Butler. "With our campus programs, we spend some of our orientation time discussing the importance of getting to know the work styles of those around you, in an effort to ensure that you are aware of  mutual expectation."

Pierce agrees. "There clearly is a generational difference—a certain rite of passage, particularly in a traditional profession like accounting. Jumping on that CPA exam and passing it is the best way for a graduate to demonstrate that he or she is serious about the role and the potential for advancement. For those who delay and don't accomplish it, that's a disadvantage that eventually denies them a promotion or a pay raise. If you don't pass the exam within a reasonable period of time, you are considered as not meeting expectations, when we review the allocation of our bonuses. We try to use more positive reinforcement rather than negative sanctions; unfortunately, it takes a combination of both, depending on the makeup of your team."

One of the consistent themes of a recent education summit hosted by Bank of America was preparing college graduates for corporate life, says Butler. "That means basic things, like being on time, or ways to communicate effectively in the age of social media—or simply getting our newer hires to realize that once you come into this culture, you do have to show up." 

"We have a very rigorous training program that's conducted annually through in-house coursework throughout the employee's career," says Pierce. "In later years, that coursework would include external programming. But for the first four or five years, the majority of the training is hosted in-house and very tailored to the needs of our employment base. That would include technical skills, personal skills, leadership skills—both soft and hard skills for young professionals. (For more information on expectations institutions can set for students with regard to employer-provided continuing education, see sidebar "From Classroom Studies to Professional Development.")

Making the Grade

How well are colleges and universities preparing the students of today for the workforce of tomorrow? The reviews are mixed.

"These recent graduates tend to have a broader base of experience," says Pierce. "Their knowledge of technology and social media can make them more prepared. They also have a perspective on their career as being a portfolio of experience rather than a portfolio of skills at a particular firm—an attitude that impacts their loyalty and their sense of permanency."

Pierce is looking at what's missing in the new graduates, but isn't sure higher education is totally responsible. "As far as their academics and coursework, I couldn't pinpoint anything specific that's not being addressed in the curricula. It is more likely social skills or what we refer to as soft skills. Perhaps maturity."

At the same time, "we all recognize the rising cost of education," says Pierce. "I am in the camp that thinks that some students need it more than others. Frankly, some of the brightest entrepreneurs we have in the country today never finished college. It is a ticket to success for many young people, but I don't think it's the end all for all people. There are apprentice programs and other forms of learning that have been discounted in our recent history that I think will see a resurgence, because there are many skills that are learned on the job, learned through apprenticeship-type mentoring."

"The biggest disconnect now is work experiences and developing the leadership skills," says Fennig. Looking at the students and the society that has raised them, she adds, "this is the trophy generation. They want a trophy for just showing up. As they've gone to school, hopefully they've done some really cool things and they can tell their story and tell why they are a good fit for this role in an organization."

Decker says the experience of interacting with other students is just one reason a degree is valuable. "Employers expect it now for anyone with upward mobility in a company. The sense of accomplishment you get by finishing a four-year degree has a lot to do with self-confidence."

In Busse's experience, graduates are better equipped for the workplace these days, thanks to career centers and preparation by college programs. She feels positive that colleges understand what they need. McGladrey's work with professors ensures graduates are trained for the industry. She says, "at McGladrey, we make it a priority to partner in the classrooms with teachers and professors.  Our company representatives help teach certain trends that are taking place in the profession—such as  hidden risks in construction contracts or the rise of data breaches—by guest hosting different classes during the semester. We also present to certain campus clubs and organizations, where we review case studies that incorporate real-life examples with students' classroom studies and problem-solving skills. This all helps our company learn more about what is taking place in the classroom, while helping faculty understand what curricular changes might help prepare students in necessary job skills."

DAVID RUPP, Pittsburgh, Pa., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

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A From Classroom Studies to Professional Development

Graduation from college doesn't mean that education must-or even can-end. Some fields require certification, and advancement usually depends on some kind of professional development. What's in store for the new graduate who manages to find a job after years of higher education? And how can campus career counselors prepare soon-to-be graduates to understand and anticipate ongoing learning at the workplace? Here are some insights from corporate employers.

  • Trusted advisers. "The younger set wants colleagues and mentors they can trust. That's very important to them," says Diane Fennig, senior consultant of Human Capital Group. "So, we encourage companies to provide new employees with some trusted partners. They want to know someone has their back. Conversely," adds Fennig, "this is a great way for companies to endear themselves to new hires, because they don't want graduates to simply walk in and walk out—that's very expensive." Such advisers have different titles within every organization, but all serve similar roles.
  • In-house expertise. At Crowe Horwath LLP, "The vast majority of training at the staff level is instructed by our internal managers, senior managers, and partners," says Cynthia Pierce. "For example, I'm teaching a business development class this week—a two-day session with senior managers and managers. This is very typical, because many of those skills reside in our leadership team, while we augment our internal training with specialized leadership skills or other soft skills. It would be unusual for us to outsource the training of technical skills, because those skills reside within our own team."

Pierce provides further insight into the company's mentoring program. "We don't call them 'coaches'; we refer to them as 'performance managers.' Essentially, the mentoring programs that occur at Crowe are largely informal. They are typically sought-out relationships, rather than assignments. From our experience," says Pierce, "a natural linkage between individuals is more likely to be successful than an assigned relationship. In part, this is related to an individual's expression of interest in a particular area of specialization, where he or she will enjoy working with a colleague who helps focus on skill development; that's where the mentorship is particularly effective."

New hires at McGladrey get a 'navigator,' someone to ensure they can find the resources they need daily (e.g., how to get office supplies, where to find the shipping room or the employee lounge). Employees also meet monthly with a 'career adviser.' "This is someone in the employee's career path, who works 20 to 30 percent of the time on advising efforts," Jennifer Busse explains. "Some staff see this as a good role for themselves, and others are sought out based on their skills and experience. "We have integration days so we can check in with them throughout their first year."

  • Mixing it up. At GCA, a local person will serve as a mentor to a new hire, while experts in other locations who possess skills relevant to their advancement will be visited as needed. Bernie Decker, vice president, human resources, education division of GCA, says they've had good experiences with this program. "It's not for everybody. Some folks may feel more sense of independence. Not everyone warms up to it."

Decker adds: "We have a popular management training program, which is a combination of classroom study, on-the-job training, and outside seminars for different companies we work with. We are really able to individualize and monitor that person's progress. These folks, who have been training with us for a year or more, can hopefully either inherit the business where they've been training, or transfer out to some new business that we've picked up recently."

  • Formal and informal. According to Stephanie Butler of Bank of America, "All our programs support and encourage formal and informal mentorships. We have mentoring programs in campus programs as well as through our employee networks." More than 60,000 of Bank of America's employees around the world participate in these networking opportunities, mentoring programs, information forums, and volunteer events.
  • Performance requirements. Ensuring the new employee obtains the necessary professional licenses and certifications can be a challenge. "In the old days, the CPA exam was required to be taken at a particular time of year. Now, there is so much flexibility that graduates often delay the successful completion, because they are distracted by more fun and interesting activities beyond their day-to-day jobs. The hardest thing to do once they are done with school is to continue the whole studying and test-taking [routine]-and they can get off track very easily," cautions Pierce.

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