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If you’ve just graduated from college, chances are you’re applying at dozens of companies in a relentless job hunt. You’ve prepared yourself for the stressful journey that is finding a job, knowing that it’s a process that could take a few months, several rounds of interviews, and so many online courses that can perhaps give you an edge over your graduate peers. Many can secure their first position shortly after graduation, but many others find the search to be more tiring because of the lack of practical experience in the field (yes, experience is sought even in fresh grads). After all, employers prefer hires who have some level of practical experience, perhaps through an internship or some college program that simulates a real work experience, which often comes off as a surprise for an unsuspecting applicant.
There is a clear mismatch between what the labor market demands and the skills that new hires entering the workforce are bringing to the table. Higher education institutions need to shift into viewing their learners as ‘job seekers’ rather than just ‘students’. “The gap between higher education institutions and the job market is due to two factors in my opinion,” says Ahmed Abdel-Meguid, professor of accounting and associate provost for enrollment management at the American University in Cairo (AUC). “First, the lack of effective in-depth conversations between academic institutions and employers about the supply and demand of skills. Second, the relatively slow pace of these institutions to react to changes in the market.”
This is paired with highly unrealistic employer expectations in terms of the skillsets of their new hires. For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nearly half of college graduates in the USA leave their first entry-level job within the first two years. For employers, this means that hiring fresh grads comes with high risks and expenses, making them less likely to get hired compared to other peers who have experience.
One remedy for this challenge is experiential learning, according to Abdel Meguid. “Most Experiential learning models actively involve students and employers. This provides natural and effective conversation platforms between academic institutions and the market. Students compare their academic knowledge and other skills acquired at their institutions to ‘real-world’ issues they are exposed to. Employers also assess the extent to which students’ knowledge and skills could be deployed for different tasks and settings at their companies,” he said.
The Cooperation Education (CO-OP) program offered by the AUC School of Business is an example of such experiential learning models. The program is designed -in an effort to reduce the time between graduation and employment and to create a real link between the demands of the labor market and academic learning. Implemented in partnership with the AUC Career Center, the CO-OP program allows students to experience the life of a working professional. “The feedback students receive within the program helps enhance their market readiness,” Abdel Meguid added. This program, and other similar university programs, allow students to engage with the industries they’re about to enter after graduation, which gives them leverage and higher chances.
Partner and PwC Egypt’s Chief Operating Officer, Nabil Diab, says his company has been part of the program because it believes in the importance of transferring this kind of practical knowledge to students before they graduate. “Within the program, students do real work and deliver results to our clients. They’re not just passively participating in the process, but also get the chance to play a role in actual work,” he said.
A study under the title “Higher Education as a Predictor of Employment: The World of Work Perspective” points out that higher education is certainly a predictor and necessity of employment for graduates; however, the benefits higher education brings to students in terms of practical experience or sufficient training are not enough for students to get hired after their graduation.
Another interesting finding of a another research titled “Higher Education and Employability” said, “Overall, employers are less demanding of technical skills, considering them trainable, if candidates exhibit employability and soft skills, and positive attributes. For some employers, the degree subject studied is not as important as the graduates’ ability to handle complex information and communicate it effectively. The evidence demonstrates that employers continue to face recruitment difficulties. One-fifth reported vacancies that could not be filled due to a lack of applicants with the necessary skills.”
This shows that an employee armed with practical work skills is a stronger competition for their peers than an employee who has just graduated with his/her college degree alone. Maha Mourad, professor and associate dean for undergraduate studies and administration at the AUC School of Business, agrees. “Many fresh grads find getting a job after graduation to be a major life challenge. They seek to find a job in their fields of study and get anxious when they discover that what they studied in college is barely in line with the needs of the jobs available in the market. It comes off as a bad surprise,” she said. However, Mourad believes that the AUC, as a higher education institution, sets a great example in making successful effort to ease the graduates’ job-seeking journey. She added that the teaching methods are developed through adding new programs that link theory with practice. “Students get to meet businessmen in various fields and attend training workshops to enhance their skills,” she noted.
Diab believes the skills that fresh grads are mostly lacking are communication, technology and language skills. “Employers now look for effective communication as one of the key skills. This allows employees to easily communicate in a work environment,” he said. Another skill that employers look for in candidates is technology skills and a good grasp of languages other than their mother tongue. “This is consistent with PwC’s Middle East Hopes and Fears survey, where 32% of respondents said that their companies were using technology to automate and upgrade the workplace. We’d like to see more fresh grads acquiring these skills from their university education,“ he added.