Employers want experience, skills over degrees

Bill Coplin

Guest columnist

A Texas prison inmate wrote me recently asking for a copy of my book after reading about it in a newspaper column. He justified the request with a claim that he achieved a 3.7 GPA in getting his associate’s degree and “acquired a lot of academic knowledge” but was not ready for the workforce when he completes his prison term soon. I hear this comment frequently from college graduates and current students everywhere from community colleges to the Ivies, and none of them are in jail.

It reminded me of what a professor said to me 40 years ago with respect to my doctorate, “A college degree and a dollar will get you four quarters.”

This statement seems counter-intuitive given the fact that people with an undergraduate degree make twice as much during their lifetime as people with only a high school degree ($2.1 million versus $1.2 million). But it is not.

Less than 30 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree. Many of them are doing just fine. Plenty of cabdrivers have their bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees. Economists report the gap between wages earned by undergraduate degree holders and by those who have no degree has reached a plateau.

The key to career success is to have a strong work ethic and the skills employers want: oral and written communication, people, research, computer application, number crunching, analytical and problem-solving skills.

Will a college education help students develop the skills they need for rewarding job opportunities? Employers and researchers answer, “not exactly.” A survey of 450 employers in 2004 by Duffey Communications reports that only 20 percent of the respondents said yes when asked. “Are schools preparing students to meet employers’ needs?”

Employers tell me they have a difficult time finding applicants with these skills. A high-level manager in a major telecommunications company e-mailed me the following: “Most kids coming straight from college to the work world do not have many (if any) of these skills at the very basic level, let alone mastered.”

Employers know the academic program and performance of students is a poor indicator when compared to their student activities, internships and jobs. The winning employees are not necessarily those who get the degree and obtain a high GPA. Those who put themselves and excel in challenging situations outside of the classroom are a much better gamble.

Lessons for the workforce are best learned when people are forced to make decisions that directly affects them.

College provides the opportunity to build the skills employers want and a job-winning resume. What counts most is careful planning early in one’s college career leading to part-time or summer jobs, internships and leadership positions on campus during the last two years.


Bill Coplin is a professor of public policy and author of Ten Things Employers Want You to Learn in College. His column was made available through krtcampus.com.