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On the Job: Employers struggle with unprepared college grads

Published September 5, 2009 4:00 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Within the past year Sarah Schupp has hired five new employees with freshly minted college degrees. She fired one on his first day for inappropriate sexual comments to a co-worker. Another lasted a week before getting a pink slip.

"When you're hiring for sales, it's tricky to find a good fit, and selling advertising is not for everyone," says Schupp, founder of UniversityParent.com in Boulder, Colo. "But you can't call in sick at 7:45 a.m. just because you don't want to come to work at 8 a.m."

Jeanne Achille also was disappointed with the hiring of a recent college hire, promoted by a university professor as a "superstar" and fired after three weeks when it was discovered she spent hours online at work visiting a dating site. She also tweeted about a night of partying -- then e-mailed in sick the next day.

"Just who is supposed to be preparing these kids for the workplace?" questions Achille, CEO of The Devon Group in Middletown, N.J. "Is it home? Is it school? Or is there a layer we've missed?"

That seems to be the question that has reignited the debate about who is responsible for the quality of college graduates in the workplace. The tension has grown as young workers enter a labor force where employers are closely watching costs, including those for recruitment and training.

"I've been hearing these same complaints for the last 15 years," says Steven Rothberg, founder of CollegeRecruiter.com, a job board for students seeking full-time work or internships. "Employers have always complained about a lack of hard and soft skills. The problem is that now employers don't have the luxury of letting employees learn on the job."

With only 15 employees, Achille says that "we don't go into a hiring decision lightly in this economy," and says no company can afford to put money into training new workers -- those dollars are reserved for "top talent," she says.

"We've decided to just not offer this position to an entry-level person anymore," Achille says. "We've had some good college students come and work here in the past, but we just can't afford to lose the productivity. It costs us money."

Schupp also agrees that there has been some "awesome" recent college graduates work for her, but she is in the same boat as Achille. With a staff of 12, she can't afford to teach basic business and "proper office behavior" to new hires.

That's why she believes that schools need to work more closely with businesses to set up internship programs that will closely track the results of a student's performance. "It needs to be measured, even if the internship is unpaid," Schupp says. "The classroom needs to be more closely integrated with the internships."

Rothberg says he believes part of the problem is that in this tough economy, some employers are "hiring down," meaning they are bringing inexperienced people on board -- for less money -- to perform jobs normally reserved for more skilled employees.

"The vast majority of schools are aware of the complaints from employers," Rothberg says. "Their eyes are permanently rolling. They're sick of being blamed. The career service people also roll their eyes because they're fed up with the lack of soft skills by these kids, like them using Twitter to badmouth a boss."

Achille says she's "frustrated" with some professors "who are trying to be friends and not mentors" to students, and believes that schools should offer "an MBA of life course" to help students understand that in the workplace "there are boundaries." Schupp says she believes students need to take more initiative and visit college career resource centers so they are more prepared to leave the classroom and enter the working world.

Both Achille and Schupp say they will be much more careful in the future about hiring new college graduates, and will be looking for those with past internships and a real work record of their skills.

Rothberg urges all those involved in this issue to remember what it was like to be in their early 20s, and to avoid negative labels of the younger generation, often referred to as Generation Y.

"This is not a generational issue. A 22-year-old is just not fully matured yet. I thought I knew everything at that age. Remember you're still dealing with people whose frontal lobes are not fully developed yet. They don't know what they don't know," Rothberg says.

Anita Bruzzese can be reached c/o Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, VA, 22107.