President's Speeches & Writings

What colleges and companies can do to launch successful careers of new graduates


Adam Weinberg & Laurel Kennedy

February 13, 2020
Students at commencement

It’s not news that skills gaps persist in this country between the knowledge new college graduates bring to the table and the expectations of the companies that hire them.

According to the Society of Human Resources Management, 75% of HR professionals reported struggling in recruiting in 2019 due to candidates’ lack of necessary skills, and 52% say that gap has widened in the past two years. This problem is most acute in high-skilled STEM fields such as data analysis, science, engineering and medicine.

Over time, this will likely hinder today’s graduates from progressing and advancing in their careers with the same speed and success as their predecessors did.

As of 2019, more than 40% of college graduates were taking jobs right out of school that either weren’t in their chosen career field or didn’t require a degree at all, and more than 20% were stuck in those fields a decade after graduation.

And so not having the right fit is a serious hurdle when it comes to job satisfaction and performance. But that’s just part of the puzzle. Even if recent graduates are working in the field they prepared for, the day-to-day financial and personal concerns that come along with entering the working world can be challenging.

At Denison University, we survey our graduates upon leaving school and again after five years in the workplace. These surveys give us a glimpse into how students say they can be better prepared for the world of work. They also provide great insights about what employers should be thinking about to help their new hires thrive.

Training matters more than ever: No matter what the field, we’ve found that it’s crucial that students in those first few years in the workforce have access to professional development opportunities.

This generation is hungry for continuing education. Despite all of the stereotypes about today’s twentysomethings — that they’re entitled, lazy or prone to job-hopping — we find our students are driven to succeed. They want to do well in life and they love learning. They’re hard-working and adaptable and they’ll take advantage of any opportunities that are given to them to accelerate in their careers.

We are doing our part to help them ramp up their workplace acumen with short, focused training on skills like coding, professional communication and using business software like Excel. But once they get in the workplace, employers should be leveraging this natural drive and interest to help develop these and other career skills.

Teach hard skills, nurture soft skills: The ability to listen with acuity, to synthesize information, to write clearly, and to be poised and effective in meetings are the kind of soft skills that matter in the professional world and are the types of attributes that liberal arts colleges excel at instilling.

As educators, we often hear from employers that they can train students on the hard skills needed to do their jobs but these other attributes are more difficult for them to find when hiring. Colleges and universities have a great opportunity to think tactically about how we create learning environments that cultivate these qualities and skills and then help both students and employers appreciate their value-add.

Boost financial literacy: Our recent alumni tell us that their professional launch would have been smoother had they had more tools around managing credit and credit cards, saving money and understanding retirement plans. They tell us they want to know more about the basics: understanding taxes, how to approach loan repayments and how to choose a bank.

We have created financial well-being programs and workshops and even hired a part-time financial wellness coach who works directly with students. We are also helping students understand how to negotiate their first salary and beyond. Employers who provide programs in these areas increase both personal and professional capacity and reduce employees’ stress. We must commit to building their confidence on both ends of the career funnel.

Focus on health and wellness: For employers and colleges, this is critical. In 2012, the World Health Organization predicted that by 2030 depression would be the leading cause of workplace illness and disability. We are there now. Fostering healthy habits around sleep, diet, movement, mindfulness and social connection supports students’ success during college, but also puts them on a path to better lives after.

We’ve done a lot of work to foster a campus environment that promotes health and to create opportunities to slow down, to be reflective, and to have time for contemplation and social connection. And building those opportunities into the career arena is also necessary. Burnout is a significant issue in the workplace that some companies are addressing with similar wellness initiatives. This is an area for continued development for us all.

Work is just one part of their life: One of the things that anyone who has ever managed a workforce understands is that, for better or for worse, people bring their personal lives into their work environments. So, if they’re stressed about bills or are struggling emotionally, that impacts their productivity and efficiency at work. And it also impacts how they interact with other employees and your workplace culture. Employers who are hiring lots of recent college graduates will benefit from thinking holistically about their employees and doing all they can to create the conditions for them to thrive. The result will be more engaged, creative, and productive workforces.

At the end of the day, today’s college graduates are a diverse and highly skilled cohort. Employers that know how to work with and nurture these employees will not only see the benefits in their contributions now but will be setting them up for long and productive careers going forward.

Adam Weinberg is the president of Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Laurel Kennedy is the vice president for student development.

Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.