Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Feelings mixed about recent college hires

In the last year there has been a noticeable shift in the mood regarding recent college graduates. While many blogs used to tout the world was their oyster, and employers had better accommodate anything they wanted, now the mood is much cooler. There has been concern and criticism about this younger generation and what they're bringing to the workplace.

I have worked with a lot of college students, and just like the rest of population -- there are some great workers and some not-so-great ones. But I wanted to talk to employers about what they were experiencing and their thoughts on how a tighter job market is impacting their hiring decisions for college students.

I wrote this for my Gannett column:

Within the last year Sarah Schupp has hired five new employees with freshly minted college degrees. She fired one on his first day for inappropriate sexual comments to a co-worker. Another lasted a week before getting a pink slip.

“When you’re hiring for sales, it’s tricky to find a good fit, and selling advertising is not for everyone,” says Schupp, founder of in Boulder, Colo. “But you can’t call in sick at 7:45 a.m. just because you don’t want to come to work at 8 a.m.”

Jeanne Achille also was disappointed with the hiring of a recent college hire, promoted by a university professor as a “superstar” and fired after three weeks when it was discovered she spent hours online at work visiting a dating site. She also Twittered about a night of partying – then e-mailed in sick the next day.

“Just who is supposed to be preparing these kids for the workplace?” questions Achille, CEO of The Devon Group in Middletown, N.J. “Is it home? Is it school? Or is there a layer we’ve missed?”

That seems to be the question that has re-ignited the debate about who is responsible for the quality of college graduates in the workplace. The tension has grown as young workers enter a labor force where employers are closely watching costs, including those for recruitment and training.

“I’ve been hearing these same complaints for the last 15 years,” says Steven Rothberg, founder of, a job board for students seeking full-time work or internships. “Employers have always complained about a lack of hard and soft skills. The problem is that now employers don’t have the luxury of letting employees learn on the job.”

With only 15 employees, Achille says that “we don’t go into a hiring decision lightly in this economy,” and says no company can afford to put money into training new workers – those dollars are reserved for “top talent,” she says.

“We’ve decided to just not offer this position to an entry-level person anymore,” Achille says. “We’ve had some good college students come and work here in the past, but we just can’t afford to lose the productivity. It costs us money.”

Schupp also agrees that there has been some “awesome” recent college graduates work for her, but she is in the same boat as Achille. With a staff of 12, she can’t afford to teach basic business and “proper office behavior” to new hires.

That’s why she believes that schools need to work more closely with businesses to set up internship programs that will closely track the results of a student’s performance. “It needs to be measured, even if the internship is unpaid,” Schupp says. “The classroom needs to be more closely integrated with the internships.”

Rothberg says he believes part of the problem is that in this tough economy, some employers are “hiring down,” meaning they are bringing inexperienced people on board – for less money – to perform jobs normally reserved for more skilled employees.

“The vast majority of schools are aware of the complaints from employers,” Rothberg says. “Their eyes are permanently rolling. They’re sick of being blamed. The career service people also roll their eyes because they’re fed up with the lack of soft skills by these kids, like them using Twitter to badmouth a boss.”

Achille says she’s “frustrated” with some professors “who are trying to be friends and not mentors” to students, and believes that schools should offer “an MBA of life course” to help students understand that in the workplace “there are boundaries.”

Schupp says she believes students need to take more initiative and visit college career resource centers so they’re more prepared to leave the classroom and enter the working world.

Both Achille and Schupp say they will be much more careful in the future about hiring new college graduates, and will be looking for those with past internships and a real work record of their skills.

Rothberg urges all those involved in this issue to remember what it was like to be in their early 20s, and to avoid negative labels of the younger generation, often referred to as Generation Y.

“This is not a generational issue. A 22-year-old is just not fully matured yet. I thought I knew everything at that age. Remember you’re still dealing with people whose frontal lobes are not fully developed yet. They don’t know what they don’t know,” Rothberg says.

How do you think college students could be better prepared to enter the workforce?



Miguel A. Corona said...

Thanks for your thoughts! As the former director of college recruitment for a Fortune 500 organization, I would suggest the best way college students can increase their impact is by gaining experience PRIOR to joining an organization. Internships and Co-ops provide college grads with a much needed "reality check" which can also steer them in a much different (and perhaps better) career destination.

Anita said...

I think this is a great suggestion, as the employers I interviewed said they were surprised by the everyday work habits that seemed to trip up many young workers: showing up on time, being respectful of other workers, being professional, etc.
Thanks for your comments.

Ask a Manager said...

This is why it's so crucial for college students to do internships and get real work experience before they graduate. When I'm hiring, I want to see that someone else has already trained you in basic office expectations and just "how to be" in a workplace.

Unknown said...

I agree with Miguel. Students need to get as much work experience as they can prior to graduation. Internships, paid or unpaid, are a great way to do this. Internships will also allow students to decide what they do and don't like in a potential career.

To address the role universities and colleges should play in student preparation for the workforce - it is a two-way street. Yes, colleges and universities should offer students courses on what to expect in the corporate world, and what is and is not appropriate. They should gain partnerships with employers to provide additional resources to their students after graduation. However, in the end, it is up to the students to capitalize on these resources. After all, it is their career.

Megan Gentille, LaSalle Network

Anita said...

Internships provide not only invaluable experience, but lots of good contacts -- something that college students may have in short supply. Hopefully, the situation now will prompt both colleges, student and businesses to work together for a win-win-win situation. If not, we all lose.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this post to some extent - I do think recent college graduates should do internships and gain experience BEFORE entering the workforce. I started working right in the middle of my second year at college and it DID pay off!

On the other hand - and I'm betting this is just a cultural thing - I am shocked at the lack of human skills some employers have. 'Human skills' would be, well, accepting everyone is human and mistakes can be made.

I've been in the same boat as some of these college graduates and I've done my fair share of 'calling in sick at 7:00 am to skip work because I partied all night long'. I've done it and I'm betting everyone else in the world has.

The only reason I don't do it anymore is because, well... now, I actually get a paycheck worth caring about. And I finally landed a job I care about, too.

So, basically, if your college students are being irresponsible, I wouldn't just blame them - I would also look inside and ask the following questions:

- Is my organization overlooking our employees' well-being and comfort in order to cut costs?
- Am I being too strict and should a warning be enough?
- Am I making a college graduate do a job a skilled worker should do but for lesser pay - and does the college graduate know about this?
- Am I taking advantage of the college graduate?

I was once told I couldn't receive a rise in my salary despite outstanding work for over a year in a company because "I didn't need it." The reason my ex boss thought I didn't need it was because I came from a wealthy family. My work from that day on lost all priority I had given it.

All I can say is, it's really easy to blame the employee. But in every single action, every single person being fired, there are two sides that should analyze themselves.

Anita said...

These are some very well-thought out comments, and I appreciate it. I, too, cringe when I think of some of the things I did as a young employee. I think part of the big problem is that these young workers often air their transgressions on social media -- and so give the employer no choice but to fire them. But at the same time, employers ARE hiring some raw talent for jobs previously filled by experienced workers, and provide little to no training. As I said, I think this is a wake-up call for everyone to work on improvements.

Rick Saia said...

Good points, especially about the value of internships during college. More schools are requiring them as part of their courses of studies, and campus career centers are more active than they were years ago, when I attended college. So, there is a greater emphasis in preparing students for the workforce. (After all, they need to get something out of the many thousands they or their parents are paying.)

Having said that, though, colleges can do more. I'd like to see more schools institute a required "work skills" course (1 credit? 3 credits?) that would expose students to how to get things done in the workplace to keep on the boss's good side and advance their careers. That might help make them more job-ready.

Anita said...

A "work-ready" course? I've got just the book for them and it's called "45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy..." :)
Seriously, as many people have said, they don't know what they don't know. What parent wouldn't be willing to pay for a course that will keep their kid from being fired after spending thousands on their education? Sounds like a sure-fire hit to me.

Rick Saia said...

Anita: Excellent start for the "required reading" list! ;-)

Unknown said...

I'd be the last person most would call a prude, but this is going to sound like that. Social skills and street smarts have gotten short shrift over the last twenty years for a number of reasons: the media where we're taught that anything goes, the lack of emphasis in families, the increasing diversity of culture that takes time away from socialization responsibilties that used to be handled by church and school...the list is endless.

Graduating from a fine suburban high school in 1952 (a half century ago), I remember, for example, being taught the fine art of introducing people--who got introduced to whom, gender and age issues, etc. A few months ago I checked my experience out with people from all generations and got nothing but looks of puzzlement--"couldn't imagine such." Of course, along with that training went the importance of being on time, dress, consistency, etc. In today's world where there is no real homogenous culture (and I'm thankful for that, too), there is also no clear sense of the rules of etiquette and relationships, so it's inevitable that the first place many meet up with those issues is on the job.

Laura Roberts of Harvard Business School says that if you aren't managing your own professional image,others are. It's not just that they're checking out your behavior, but they're also forming theories about your competence, character and commitment. This is not merely an issue of "dress for success."

I blog on this issue in detail, and include the current research here:

Anita said...

Thanks for your comments. I once told a college student who was concerned that he might not have the proper "manners" for a job interview/meal that he should first go out to dinner with an elderly aunt. I advised him to spend the day with her, and to request that she give him whatever pointers she thought necessary. He said he got an earful. Maybe it's time we all invested in some etiquette classes, and if we can't afford them, to call up our elderly aunts and ask them to provide guidance. :)

ElizabethJames said...

I want to know why the woman cited in this case chose such poor candidates. Interviewing is supposed to weed out those candidates who will be unable to fit into an organization. I have to question her candidate selection abilities before I can blame the workers for being bad workers.

Also, it seems unfair to use one or two anecdotes to classify an entire generation of workers as "lacking in hard and soft skills". I've worked with people of all generations who slacked off, made inappropriate sexual comments in the workplace, and were generally horrible employees.

And as to the employee who was chastised for visiting a dating site for several hours during each workday - was she given enough work to fill up 8 hours? Did she already finish what she had to do for the day? So many employers have no idea that their workers are underutilized. At my last 3 jobs I had about 15 minutes of work to do in each given workday. The rest of my time I spent reading, shopping, and generally screwing around. I told my bosses I didn't have enough to do, but they were unable to give me more work. So I'd like to know if the boss in this story had a clear idea of what her staff could do, and if she was using them to their full potential.

If your employees are disappointing you, I really think you should look at what you're doing, and not cast blame on the colleges, the parents, the media, or whatever else seems like a good scapegoat.

Anita said...

In the story, the employer stated that she's had some "awesome" college workers, so she was clear that not all college grads are bad hires.
As for the bosses making bad hires, they did state they put the candidates through tough interviews. The hire who made the online mistakes came highly recommended by a professor, even called a "superstar."
I also had a source in this story state that this is not a new problem to the workplace, that college graduates are young and have always made mistakes when they begin a job -- but employers are less inclined to put up with them because they're hiring them for tougher work and because workplaces are operating so lean that every hire is critical.
As for your personal situation, you bring up a good point about bosses making sure they have enough to keep workers busy.
I also agree with you that they need to consider what they're doing to contribute to an employee's success, whether it's training or providing a mentor or communicating better the expectations and rules of the job.
Hopefully, this discussion will continue so that both managers and young workers will come to a better understanding.
Thanks for your comment.

Lynn M said...

This is probably one of the first times in history where four generations can be working together in a corporate environment. True, college grads are green and there is a maturity issue there that contributes to what might be considered unprofessional behavior. Perhaps the newly hired employee should be mentored a bit more by his/her boss. I'm not saying to coddle or induldge the person, but take just a few minutes a week to give some sincere and useful advice based on what you see with regard to the young employee's performance and actions in the workplace. It would be a good opportunity for that employee to learn, a wonderful opportunity to assist someone in his/her career, and a service to the other employees in the office.

Anita said...

I think 24/7 workplace and the constant demands have helped create this problem. Companies have cut budgets for training programs, and employees no longer have the time or patience to show young people the ropes. I hope more people will read your comments and see that teaching others can be an enriching and learning experience.

Anita said...

I think a lot of people would agree with you! It could be very dangerous to write someone off just because they were a certain age. In this economy, as you said, we're all under a microscope.
Thanks for posting your thoughts.

Dr. G said...

As founder of a career advice site for students, my view is that graduates need to get into the habit of adopting a new persona. How they act at College or University won't lead to success in a working environment. Induction programmes don't deal with this. As teh new recruit often lacks the insight, I think its largely incumbent on the new employer to make it clear what's acceptable and what is not.

Jane | Dubai Jobs said...

I believe that the college students go through proper internships & YLDP trainings (youth leadership programs) for them to get along with the office culture.

Myka | Recruitment Agencies said...

Doing an internship during college days definitely adds value within a student.This not gives him an exposure but also gives give an idea of work ethics and office environment.