The one skill employers want most from new grads

Kristin Tyndall, editorKristin Tyndall, editor

The skills gap is keeping a lot of people up at night in higher ed right now.

As students grow more concerned about the ROI of their college degrees, colleges are working on bringing their academic programs into better alignment with the job market. In turn, the EAB Daily Briefing's coverage of in-demand skills and employer surveys often rank among our most popular stories.

As I follow coverage of the skills gap, I couldn't help but notice that one skill keeps appearing over and over again on employers' wish lists: collaboration.

Two skills related to collaboration—oral communication and teamwork—ranked No. 1 and No. 3 on a list of skills deemed "very important" by employers in this 2016 survey by Greenfield Community College. And employment growth is higher among jobs that rely on social skills than those that rely on analytical or physical skills, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center. Employers also say they love to hire student-athletes because—you guessed it—athletes have a lot of experience with teamwork.

Recruiters, HR managers, and CEOs agree: Soft skills are the most important skills for new grads

Even in industries that rely on technical and quantitative skills, we see a voracious appetite for new grads who can collaborate. An April report on the data science and analytics field cited collaboration as one of the most important skills for data scientists.

Despite the demand for collaboration skills, college grads still lag behind employer expectations. Just a few weeks ago, a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that over 80% of midsize or larger employers search for collaboration skills but only 40% of these employers said new graduates actually had these skills.

The skills students need to prepare for the future workforce

And many students may overestimate their abilities at teamwork. In March, a survey of business school students found that the students rated their collaboration abilities much higher than recruiters did. In fact, teamwork was one of the biggest areas of disconnect between students and recruiters.

So what can colleges do to ensure their students are learning teamwork?

One method, called argument-based learning, teaches students how to create clear arguments and respectfully disagree. For example, at Ohio State University, students in the Collaborative Social Reasoning program have been asked to compare today's debates about immigrants to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Some experts also recommend project-based learning. In 2016, one teaching and learning expert argued that it was time to expand these programs beyond engineering and business schools.

The campus career center helps teach collaboration skills to students at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Its Mines Advantage Course features 30 exercises in areas such as career preparation, diversity, community, involvement, personal development, and leadership/ teamwork, and communication.

Finally, some schools have found that active learning classrooms can help by supporting instructors' efforts to incorporate teamwork into their courses. A meta-analysis of studies on active learning classrooms found that the flexible environments helped lower the DFW rate (share of students who receive a "D" or "F" grade in a course or withdraw). A separate study found that test scores of students in active learning classrooms were six points higher than those in a traditional room studying the same material.

Read more: Your field guide to active learning classrooms

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