When a liberal arts degree isn't enough, bring on “experiential learning”

July 8, 2014

There are unavoidable constants in life that usually are said to include death and taxes. To this list we should add old people complaining about younger generations. But when the complainers are business executives, a few entrepreneurial-minded educators sense an opportunity.

That's one conclusion that can be drawn from the recent advent of programs aimed at giving workplace skills to newly minted liberal arts graduates. After spending four years and tens of thousands of dollars or more on a degree in liberal arts, we are told, most graduates lack the skills to get anything other than menial jobs. To rectify the situation, they now have the opportunity to spend a few thousand additional dollars on programs covering such business fundamentals as organizational behavior and marketing.

Perhaps sensing a lucrative area, several private companies have popped up to offer such programs. And now traditional business schools that include Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and the Harvard Business School have gotten in on this act as well. One highlight of such programs is an “experiential learning” option where students work with employers. 

The more cynical among us might say these institutions have figured out how to monetize what used to be called summer internships.

Perhaps it's time to exercise a skill some claim is lacking among recent graduates: critical thinking. Specifically, critical thinking about the claim that recent grads lack the skill to hold down real jobs. One piece of evidence hauled out to justify such assertions is a study of 500 business executives conducted by Northeastern University. The headline result for this study is that 73% of the business leaders polled think there's a skills gap among today’s U.S. workforce, and 87% think college graduates "lack the most important skills needed to succeed," whatever that means.

Despite the alarm raised by this hand-wringing, few media reports have seen fit to go into the survey itself to see what skills these executives were really talking about. Suffice to say, a less alarming picture emerges from a review of the actual questions and responses.

For example, consider the response to the question, How would you rate the job the U.S. higher education system is currently doing in terms of preparing recent college graduates for the workforce?  A little less than half those polled thought educators were doing a good job and another third categorized preparation as "fair." Just 10% thought preparation was poor, a figure that is in the same ballpark as those who think educators are doing an excellent job (7%). 

Also interesting was the response to a question about the single most important skill or capability a recent college graduate could possess.  Recall that the highlights for this study claim 87% of business leaders think recent grads lack these skills. Thus it is noteworthy that the top six are, in order of perceived importance: 

Communication skills

Interpersonal skills and working in teams


Work ethic

Ability to learn and be trained

Willingness to work/learn

I, for one, am mystified how a quickie curriculum in business methods, as peddled by mercenary educational institutions, can hope to impart soft skills such as a good work ethic or adaptability to students who lack such qualities going in. 

Finally, the survey asked business leaders about the factor that was most important for their own career success. The answer was revealing. The most widely cited trait had nothing to do with communication skills, adaptability, or any of the other soft skills executives look for in recent grads: Personal drive and ambition was the clear winner. 

So here is some advice for educators: Forget the idea of teaching soft skills. Come up with a program that gives students ambition. Then you will have devised a course that executives themselves would be forced to admit covers the most important quality for business success.

About the Author

Lee Teschler | Editor

Leland was Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design. He has 34 years of Service and holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan, a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan;, and a MBA from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, Lee worked as a Communications design engineer for the U.S. Government.

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