“Prepared” – Disparity Between University and Employer Perceptions

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By Scott Lurding, Altus Advisory Partners

Many feel that an important outcome of a university education is to prepare a student to enter the working world with the knowledge and skills appropriate for the available jobs.  However, a 2013 Gallup poll provides a startling statistic[i]:

  • 96% of chief academic officers rate their institution as very/somewhat effective at preparing students for the world of work.
  • 11% of business leaders strongly agree that graduating students have the skills and competencies that their business needs.

This is a huge disparity. Why is there such disconnect between the opinions of leaders in business and academia?

The same Gallup poll reported that only 13% of surveyed business leaders believe there is a great deal of collaboration between academia and businesses.  However, 88% of these business leaders favor an increased level of cooperation, and 77% believe that businesses should do more to increase collaboration.  The desire for collaboration is there, but it’s up to university and business leaders to come together and turn that desire into action.

Strategies for University-Employer Engagement

The only way for employers and universities to bridge the gap in preparedness is to engage with each other and to develop collaborative programs.  There are many ways that universities and local employers can work together to better prepare students to enter the work force.  Some of these strategies include:

Academic Programs – Seeking industry opinions on university programs, curricula, and student preparedness gives university administrators and boards honest feedback.  Industry advice helps universities provide programs that better meet the needs of regional employers, resulting in graduates who are better prepared for the local workforce.  For example, students who worked on a long-term project that took several classes to complete, something more representative of a “real world” project, were more than twice as likely to have a high 21st century skill development as those who did not.i

Industry-University Communication – Developing ongoing opportunities for industry senior executives and university senior administrators to meet and focus on the region’s greatest employment needs and the curricular programs to serve them.  Communication between industry and academia in these forums can break down the walls between the two, improve communication, and result in more applicable education strategies.

On-Campus Visibility for Industry – Bringing industry executives to campus in order to provide real-world advice and insight to students and faculty.  These interactions can take the form of advisory panels, guest lecturers, and student mentorships.  By exposing students to the needs of industry before they graduate, they can take action to prepare themselves in ways that are valuable to employers.

Off-Campus Student Opportunities – Creating internship and co-op programs with regional employers to give students relevant industry experience.  Businesses that are hiring love to find graduates who have relevant experience outside of the academic setting.  Internships and co-op programs are a great way to provide preparatory training that’s not possible in the classroom, making graduates with this experience more hirable.

Using a Consultant to Facilitate University-Employer Engagement

The historic lack of interaction between employer and university leaders has resulted in a clear divide in the language and frameworks used by each.  Because of this disconnect, it’s often beneficial for the two parties to work with a “translator”.  A third party consultant with experience facilitating discussions between businesses and universities can be invaluable to both sides.

Besides the translation aspect, there are many other benefits to using a consultant to facilitate university-employer engagement.  Consultants can gather and provide objective feedback for both sides of the partnership.  Businesses and universities may “pull their punches” when representatives of the other side are in a meeting, but with a consultant they can provide honest and objective criticism.

Consultants who specialize in business-university relationships have developed contacts within both circles.  This makes it easier for university leaders to make contacts within business circles and vice versa.

Finally, consultants focused on developing university-employer relationships are more efficient at doing the “heavy lifting” in terms of planning and facilitating meetings and discussions and organizing campaigns, leaving business executives and university leaders with the time to focus on what they do best: leading their own organizations.


[i] Lumina Foundation/Gallup Poll 2013, “The 2013 Inside Higher Education Survey of Colleges and University Chief Academic Officers Report”.