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What Employers Want (2013 Summer Commencement Afternoon Ceremony)

  • Date: 08/17/2013
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • The lessons learned and experiences gained during your years here have laid the foundation for a successful entry into the workforce.  Indeed, some of you already have received offers of employment prior to graduation, and others are well advanced in that process.

    I trust that all of you took your advisors’ counsel and began your job search long before today.  So this afternoon’s lesson will be more of a review of some pertinent facts that will aid you in the first critical years of your professional careers.  

    A few months ago the Association of American Colleges and Universities released the results of a survey it had commissioned.[i]  They asked more than 300 employers what kind of learning college students need to succeed in today’s economy.  This national sampling included privately held companies, non-profit organizations, major corporations and small businesses.

    Before I tell you their responses, let us first establish some context.  Employees at every level, from interns to CEOs, are hired for one reason only: to help the organization succeed.  And what propels organizational success in today’s global, knowledge-driven economy?

    More than 90 percent of employers who responded to the survey agreed that innovation was essential to their organization’s continued success.[ii]  Nearly all – in fact 95 percent ­­– said, “they give hiring preference to college graduates with skills that will enable them to contribute to innovation in the workplace.”[iii]

    And what skills are those? Listen to this: 93 percent of employers said “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate majors.”[iv]

    Let me say that again: the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than…undergraduate majors.

    A bit later, we will confer an honorary degree upon Dr. Chander Mohan, a man who exemplified these qualities throughout his career and during his fine tenure as a member of our Board of Trustees.

    There is an uninformed opinion spreading in this country that a college education should be little more than vocational training for professionals.  While that opinion may be popular on radio talk shows or in letters to the editor, it is not popular among senior management or human resources directors.  Once again, I refer to the AACU survey for evidence of this.

    Employers were asked which of these attributes is the most important for a graduate to possess:

    ·      Knowledge and skills that apply to a specific field or position

    ·      A range of skills and knowledge that apply to a range of fields or positions, or

    ·      A combination of field-specific knowledge and skills, AND a broad range of knowledge and skills.

    The responses of these business representatives diverge greatly from that of today’s would-be critics of higher education.

    Only 16 percent of employers placed the highest value on knowledge and skills in a specific field or position.  Only 29 percent voted for the limited range of knowledge and skills.[v]

    Fully 55 percent said they wanted graduates who have a broad range of skills and knowledge, as well as skills and understanding specific to their field.[vi]

    Employers want critical thinkers.

    They want communicators.

    They want problem solvers.

    Most of all, they want employees who are a combination of all three.

    Debra Humphrey, a vice president with AACU, said the economic downturn in 2008 has “put a premium on college graduates who are really multifaceted.”[vii]  She added that, “Narrow technical skills have a shorter and shorter lifespan, and a lot of employers are aware of that.”

    Marcy L. Reed, president of a Massachusetts gas and utility company named National Grid, put the issue more bluntly.  She said, “I have to be sure the people we hire today are fit for tomorrow.”[viii]

    The AACU survey supports findings from another, larger survey that was conducted last year on behalf of The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s “Marketplace.”[ix]

    In that study the majority of employers said that although colleges do a good job of producing successful employees, companies want to see more graduates who are adaptable, have good communication skills and – once again – possess the ability to solve complex problems.[x]

    To that I would add one other quality.  When we ask our friends in the private and public sectors what kind of skills they want us to instill in our graduates, more and more often we hear them say, “Give us emotional resiliency.”  The ability to bounce back from setback or frustrations.

    Executives tell us that their employees need to welcome change...to accept risks…to learn from failures...and to adapt to the fast pace of technical innovation.

    As David Boyes, president and Chief Technical Officer of Sine Nomine Associates, recently said “It’s not a matter of technical skills, but of knowing how to think.”[xi]

    When you consider the rapid pace at which technology evolves today, such attitudes among employers are only logical.

    In the AACU survey, 91 percent of employers agreed that the challenges facing employees are more complex than they were in the past, and 93 percent agreed with the statement that their company asks employees to take on more responsibility and to use a broader set of skills than in the past.[xii]

    Employers also want graduates whose skill set aligns with the demands of today’s dynamic, global, knowledge-based economy.  Respondents to the AACU survey were provided a list of types of knowledge and skills that are important considerations when hiring new employees.  They were asked to identify those attributes that were very important to the hiring decisions of their company or organization.

    The area that garnered the most votes – 76 percent – was ethics, specifically ethical judgment and integrity.  That was followed by intercultural skills, the ability to be comfortable working with colleagues, customers, and/or clients from diverse cultural backgrounds.  And the item with the third-highest number of votes was professional development, or the capacity for continued new learning.[xiii]

    Over the past several years, you have become accustomed to referring to yourselves by your majors of study.  It is time now to leave that identity behind.  In a few moments we will confer degrees upon you, and you will become University of Akron graduates.

    If you desire to reap the full benefits of your degree, do not leave here thinking only that I am an English major, or an engineering major, or a criminal justice major.

    Instead, also consider yourself a critical thinker, a communicator, and most importantly, a problem solver.  If you do, you will find the job market a much more welcoming environment.

    [i]It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.” April 10, 2013. Hart Research Associates, Washington DC. Commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

    [ii] Hart Associates, Ibid

    [iii] Hart Associates, Ibid

    [iv] Hart Associates, Ibid

    [v] Hart Associates, Ibid

    [vi] Hart Associates, Ibid

    [vii] Budryik, Zach. “More Than a Major.” Inside Higher Education. April 10, 2013. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/04/10/survey-finds-business-executives-arent-focused-majors-those-they-hire

    [viii] Budryik, Ibid

    [ix] Fischer, Karin. “A College Degree Sorts Job Applicants, But Employers Wish It Meant More.” Chronicle of Higher Education. March 4, 2013. http://chronicle.com/article/The-Employment-Mismatch/137625/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en#id=overview

    [x] Fischer, Ibid.

    [xi] Fischer, Ibid.

    [xii] Hart Associates, Ibid

    [xiii] Hart Associates, Ibid


  • Topic Category: Commencement Address
  • Tags: critical thinking, communication, problem solving, employers,
  • Filed in:

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