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What College Graduates Lack

Americans have lost their competitive edge. Can college restore it?

By Burt Wallerstein

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March 03, 2013

Traditionally, the American education system, from kindergarten through college, produced innovation, intellectual flexibility, analytical and lateral thinking. In contrast, our international competitors stressed rote learning and conformity. Thus, Americans have had a competitive edge.

Today, however, colleges are failing to leverage that competitive edge. Some years ago, our nation’s advantage diminished as the Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan), and more recently China and India, began to emerge as economic forces. This trend will continue until our college graduates learn how to compete in the new economy.

As Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, Inc., writes in The Coming Jobs War, the age of the secure job is over. The millennial generation understands that. A 2011 Pew study of young people in the workforce found that 46 percent believed they lacked the education or training necessary to thrive in their careers. But they do not see a clear solution to the problem.

What are they missing? If, upon graduation, young people cannot communicate effectively, do not understand how shifts in global growth will affect their future, and are not preparing themselves to becoming independent contractors at some point, they likely will never fulfill their potential.   

About forty years ago, the Asian Tigers (followed by China and India) all had struggling economies, but a wealth of underutilized assets. They discovered that one step to building economic wealth was to export intellectual capital to Western economies, particularly the United States, Europe, and Australia. They correctly observed that as economies became more affluent, their populations tend to become lazier, less focused, and more “entitled.”

Influential people in those countries recognized that math, science, engineering, and, later, technology were fields that students would not be required to study at our colleges, nor would American students in mass numbers take them as electives. Before coming to the United States  (and other countries), Asian students were required to study the foreign language, culture, and value systems of the country. They were educated in fields with great demand and they immersed themselves in our culture, learned capitalism, became independent, and offered value to our economy and to theirs. Some stayed here but some went home.

There was no lack of jobs for these grads! The value added to both their and our economies is incalculable.

Now it is our turn to follow their model, leverage our underutilized assets, and exploit our competitive edge. While not every graduate will go into business, millennials must be ready for change and ready to seize opportunities, sometimes in other countries. Much of the growth in the future will come from the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Business opportunities and jobs in almost every industry in manufacturing, construction, and services, will exponentially increase in the foreseeable future both in the BRICs and in the United States, as multi-national corporations grow or expand and new businesses are formed.

In my view, our college graduates—yes, even liberal arts majors—must know the following:

  • Communication. This includes conversation (listening is part of it), public speaking, clear writing, and effective advocacy and argument. Employers consistently express frustration at graduates’ failings on this score. 
  • Branding, selling, and networking. Millennials are sometimes called the “self-esteem” generation, but they do not know how to brand or sell themselves or their services. They do not know that it is important to build relationships and connect emotionally with people who can use their services. They do not know that the best sales are not “sales” at all but a process of helping someone understand what's best for his or her interests and how to act on it.
  • Ability to analyze. This comes through examining and thinking through case studies rather than just listening to lectures and repeating their contents.
  • Genuine awareness of the rest of the world. If students throughout college regularly read the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Time, they would have a sense of the economic, political, and religious forces in the world.
  • Intense study of one BRIC country. That should include its language, history, politics, economics, culture, and business practices—with at least one semester abroad. The BRIC nations have already been the engine of global growth; Goldman Sachs projects that by 2050 they will represent 40 percent of global gross domestic product. Their combined economies could eclipse the total output of the current richest countries in the developed world.
  • Starting a business. While it is unrealistic to expect all students to start businesses, learning the processes to do so would be the capstone in preparation for the world that awaits them.

If graduates had these skills and experiences, they would improve their market value and therefore be more employable, able to pay off their debts, and be less at the mercy of future employers. Opportunities here and abroad would be endless.

I am an entrepreneur—I take ideas and turn them into profitable businesses—so I am not familiar with precisely how colleges can teach these necessary skills. But I suspect that some of the time students spend in courses like “Dogs and People: From Prehistory to an Urbanized Future“ (an actual course taught at UNC-Chapel Hill, I’m told) or blogging in freshman composition (also an actual practice at UNC-Chapel Hill) could be usefully spent acquiring these skills.

Can our colleges provide students with a relevant education? One that will enable them to maximize their potential and become positive forces, both domestically and in the emerging countries? That is a critical question.

 


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