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New Grad Hires: Ready and Willing, but Are They Able?

For the 1.5 million members of the Class of 2008, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that employers expect to hire 8% more new college graduates in ’08 than they did in ’07. That’s great, but it’s significantly less than the 16% increase employers had projected when they were surveyed in August ’07 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

And here’s some more bad news, this time for employers: Two-thirds (63%) of employers say college graduates lack essential skills to succeed in today’s global economy, according to a report by the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). “College graduates will need much more cross-disciplinary knowledge and an advanced set of communication and analytical skills to apply their knowledge to real-world problems,” concludes the report.

NACE’s Job Outlook 2008 survey echoes the LEAP study, making it clear that to be successful, new employees need skills that go way beyond in-depth knowledge of their specific areas of concentration. Says NACE’s Marilyn Mackes: “We’ve been doing our survey since 1999, and each year, when we ask employers to rate the importance of a variety of skills and abilities, communication comes out on top.” Ironically, when asked which key skill was most lacking in new college graduate candidates, respondents replied, “communication skills.”

“Many employers pointed to a lack of writing skills on the part of candidates, and others reported that new college graduates lack the ability to communicate effectively in face-to-face situations, including the job interview,” says Mackes.

The notion that vital (yet oft-times ignored) communication skills can make or break one’s career is also underscored in The Hard Truth about Soft Skills, a new book by training professional Peggy Klaus. She writes: “What strikes me most about stories of missed opportunities and derailed careers is this: The source of their anxiety and frustration is rarely a shortfall in technical or professional expertise. Instead, it invariably stems from a shortcoming in their soft skills repertoire—the non-technical traits and behaviors needed for successful career navigation.”

At least one voice from academia validates what we’re hearing from businesspeople. Kim M. Fields, Director of Career Services at Wake Forest University School of Law, counsels her students to pay attention to how they present themselves:  “My advice to students is that it’s important to develop social skills, to learn how to work with different kinds of people and different generations. As we continue to focus on technology as our primary means of communication, we are in danger of our interpersonal skills becoming more obsolete. I believe those traits will be sought after even more in the future because a lot of young people are uncomfortable in social situations. They’ve become so used to communicating via e-mail and text messaging. They also need to learn about what’s appropriate in various situations. For example, a younger person may call someone by his or her first name in an interview, which is not considered proper by someone from the older generation.”

So, since academics and businesspeople make such a convincing case for the importance of communication skills in the workplace, one might logically assume that universities and businesses emphasize these soft skills when preparing young people for the workplace. Unfortunately, says Klaus, soft skills are the Rodney Dangerfield of training—they get no respect. “Despite collectively spending more than $50 billion on training programs for employees,” writes Klaus, “many corporations fail to offer soft skills programs at all. And when they do provide them, the programs are often exclusively reserved for ‘high-potential’ employees or senior executives.” “Unfortunately,” she continues, “college and university curriculums—even for advanced business degrees—are doing little more than the corporations when it comes to teaching soft skills. And it shows.”

Whether a new college graduate’s area of academic expertise is in engineering or art, the ability to communicate clearly—verbally and in writing—to a wide range of people, is absolutely essential. If potential job candidates haven’t honed their communication skills in college or at part-time jobs, they’d better do some quick remedial soft skills work before they find themselves in an HR director’s office.

Here are a few simple tips for young people about to embark on those all-important job interviews:
  • Do your research. Search online and at the local library for books on interviewing, writing, and public speaking. Get some ideas about the kinds of questions you’ll be asked during a job interview so that you won’t be thrown off guard at the actual interview.
  • Practice.  Conduct a mock job interview with a friend. Take turns being the interviewer and interviewee.
  • Make a list.  Arrive at the interview with a written list of talking points. Walking in with a small note pad, preferably in a portfolio, will actually make you look more professional. List the key points about yourself that you want to communicate to the interviewer. Write them down and make sure you cover each of them. If you have trouble getting them all in, remember that at the end of the meeting the interviewer will most likely ask you if you have anything else to add. That’s a perfect time to let him know about a unique skill or exceptional accomplishment.
  • Know your audience. If you know the name of the interviewer in advance, Google him. During the interview, mention something you learned in your research. For example, when my son Logan was preparing for an interview with a college dean, we found that the dean was an expert on Cuba and had written a book on the topic. Thanks to Amazon.com we printed out a chapter from the book and Logan was able to initiate an intelligent discussion about Cuban politics—which no doubt impressed and flattered the dean. So much information about corporations and individuals is now available at the touch of a mouse; there’s no excuse for not going into an interview armed with lots of insider knowledge and intelligent questions.
  • Listen up.  Remember that effective communication involves listening as much as talking. In the words of the wise Greek philosopher Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Sure, you want to get your key points across, and yes, you want to ask a lot of questions. But many interviewers love to talk and the wise interviewee will let them. Make sure the interviewer knows you are paying attention. Wait until he or she has finished speaking, then either ask a follow-up question or refer to your talking points.
  • Follow up via snail mail. Since the person who interviewed you is most likely over 20 years of age, e-mail, voice mail, IM'ing, and text messaging are not appropriate means of communication. Buy a tasteful pack of note cards and use them. Thank the person for his or her time and mention a topic you particularly enjoyed discussing with him or her.

New grads should keep in mind that while top-notch communication skills will give their careers a tremendous boost, they still need to demonstrate expertise in their core area of study and to show that they are willing to work hard. “A strong work ethic” shares the top spot on employers’ skill wish list in the NACE survey. The survey concludes, “The ‘perfect’ candidate for the job is a top-notch communicator and a hard worker.”

To learn more, consider these books:
Acing the Interview, by Tony Beshara (AMACOM, 2008) 

Speak to Win, by Brian Tracy (AMACOM, 2008)

The Language of Success, by Tom Sant (AMACOM, 2008)

About the Author(s)

Shari Lifland is Editorial Communications Manager for American Management Association.  She is editor of the eNewsletters "Moving Ahead," "Management Update," and "Administrative Excellence," and manages content for the Members-only section of AMA's Website.