How to Prime Students to Compete in the Job Market

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Preparing students for the job marketWhile employment rates are steadily rising as the U.S. recovers from the recession, employment prospects are not. Though unemployment has dropped below 4% for the first time since 2000, employment prospects for recent college graduates (graduates who have been out of school for five years at most) are not improving at the same rate as the rest of the country, having only decreased by 0.1% since 2017. This rate is far behind that of experienced worker groups like professional and business services, whose employment rate has increased by 2.5%.

In addition, many graduates who are able to secure a job are finding that their positions are not necessarily appropriate for their educational backgrounds—roughly 44% of recent graduates and one in three total college graduates (34%) are underemployed in jobs that do not require a college degree.

While graduates struggle to find jobs that maximize their abilities, employers face a “skills gap” in their new recruits. Despite their education, many graduates lack the specific skills needed for many technical roles; while 87% of recent grads feel “well-prepared” for their new jobs, only 50% of managers feel they meet the skills needed for their roles. To help close the skills gap and improve the employment outcomes for their graduates, many higher education institutions are offering new programs to improve their graduates’ marketability. Here are the top three most beneficial ways institutions can prime students to compete in the job market:

1. Offer Job-Critical Certifications

Certificates are the fastest-growing form of college credentials, making up 22% of all college awards. As more jobs require college-based training, many previous students are returning to college to earn credentials throughout their careers, with a third of certificates earned by students over the age of 30. With certificate holders earning 20% more than workers who only hold a high school diploma, certificates are valuable ways for students to bolster skills or learn new ones to distinguish themselves in the job market.

Universities should take their most in-demand academic programs into account when determining certificates to offer, while also considering how offering job-specific certificates may bolster the demand for less-popular majors. By surveying current and potential students, institutions can understand students’ educational priorities and offer certificates that will best help them prepare for their future careers. In-demand certificates institutions may offer include:


  • Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS)
  • Registered Nurse (RN)
  • Advanced Cardiac Life Support Certification (ACLS)
  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
  • Secret Clearance
  • Project Management Professional (PMP)
  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Child Development Associate
  • Neonatal Resuscitation Program


2. Embed Core Academic Offerings with Hard Skills

Many graduates experience a skills gap between what they learned in college and the skills they need to succeed in their careers. In a survey conducted by PayScale, 44% of employers said that new graduates are most lacking in writing proficiency, while 36% cite a gap in data analysis skills, including proficiency in programs like Excel, Tableau, and Python. These skills are critical for students working in technical fields like engineers and computer scientists, but careers centered on liberal arts increasingly demand computer proficiency and working knowledge of writing and analytical software.

Even in the digital age, many schools are not offering specific training in technology, leaving students inexperienced in the platforms they will need to master in their future careers. Universities can help bridge this gap by offering instruction and learning experiences so students can harness hard skills. Schools can offer hard skills training in:


  • Microsoft Excel
  • Sales
  • Computer Programming/Coding
  • Mathematics
  • Microsoft Word
  • Teaching/Training
  • Presentation
  • Language Courses/Learning
  • Personal Computers
  • Computer Networking


3. Provide Opportunities to Develop Soft Skills

While developing hard skills is essential for students to compete in the job market,employers are even more united in the opinion that recent graduates lack necessary soft skills. 60% of managers claim that new hires do not have the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for their roles, while 56% also cite a lack of attention to detail, 46% report inferior communication skills, and 36% note subpar interpersonal and teamwork skills.

Higher education institutions may believe that students already possess the soft skills they need to contend in the job market, or that students will acquire them naturally during their studies. With a chasm between the skills graduates possess and the inadequacies employers report, it is vital for schools to offer a strong focus on soft skills to help students adapt to changing circumstances, learn through experience, work with others, and grow as leaders. Soft skills that universities should emphasize include:


  • Communication
  • Customer Service
  • Cooperative/Team Player
  • Self-Motivated/Ability to Work
  • Independently/Self-Leadership
  • Supervision/Management
  • Adaptability/Flexibility
  • Detail-Oriented/Meticulous
  • Problem Solving
  • Organization
  • Interpersonal Relationship

See more tips about how your institution can help prepare its graduates for the job market: Download the How to Build Graduates Employers Want to Hire infographic.

Preparing students for the job market

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