People@Work: Why So Many of 2010's College Grads Are Unprepared

For this spring's fresh batch of college graduates, the job market presents a decidedly mixed picture. Though unemployment remains high -- Friday's Labor Department report showed the U.S. jobless rate slipped just a bit to 9.7%, thanks mostly to Census hiring -- prospects appear brighter than they did at this time last year.

In part, that's simply a matter of the economic cycle. Last year, employers were still busy cutting massive numbers of workers. This year, while hiring remains weak in some areas, some businesses are adding employees, and some professions are even experiencing worker shortages.

A recent survey by Manpower (MAN) found that 31% of employers worldwide reported having difficulty filing key positions within their organization, a one-percentage-point rise from last year. Positions hardest to fill are some of those that perennially appear on the staffing company's survey: skilled trades, sales representatives, technicians and engineers. That demonstrates a global mismatch between the kinds of talent employers need and the types of careers for which young people are seeking training, Manpower says.

"Employers have gotten more specific about the combination of skill sets that they are looking for, not only seeking technical capabilities in a job match, but holding out for the person that possesses the additional qualities above and beyond that will help drive their organization forward," says Jeffrey A. Joerres, Manpower chairman and chief executive. "This conundrum is upsetting to the ubiquitous job seeker, who will need to take more responsibility for his/her skills development in order to find ways to remain relevant to the market."

Looking for Special Talents

Indeed, just a few years ago, when this year's college graduates were embarking on their college careers, employment experts were advising students to pursue wide and varied studies. A degree in liberal arts appeared to be just the ticket to a promising career. During that period of low unemployment, employers were looking for well-rounded individuals to -- as Joerres might have put it -- "help drive their organizations forward."

Why the change? Well, it's the economy, stupid. With much-reduced staffs, employers need individuals with special talents who can tackle specific tasks, not someone who can wax poetic about the Renaissance. But even if students have managed to pursue an in-demand profession, another study shows that college graduates largely are unprepared for the world of work.

Researchers for York College of Pennsylvania asked hundreds of business leaders and human resources managers across the country to assess the professionalism of recent college graduates, and the results were sobering. "What we found was that there are a set of qualities, characteristics that these people would like to see in new college graduates," York College professor David Polk told National Public Radio's Morning Edition program. "Unfortunately, they tend to be lacking."

"Stop Texting"

To better prepare its students, the college recently enlisted the aid of Laura Wand, director of marketing for Johnson Controls (JCI), a large local employer, to offer advice to dozens of soon-to-be graduates packed into the campus auditorium, NPR reported. Armed with PowerPoint slides, Wand offered candid advice about how to conduct oneself in today's workplace.

"Multitasking is a myth," Wand told the students. "You got a great job. Turn off the cell phone. Stop texting."

That may or may not be the kind of career advice today's gadget-dependent young people are looking for. But one thing is clear: Even as employers have become more with liberal workplace policies, such as allowing telecommuting and casual dress, they still demand that workers perform. And that's a skill that few colleges can teach.