Higher education has taken a hit lately for not preparing graduates for a successful career. Arguments are flying that graduates walk across the stage with degrees that have left them ill-equipped for today’s complex workplace. In particular, employers are disillusioned by their inability to relate to and manage millennials. It would be easy to dismiss this as a generational gap, or millennials not understanding the realities of the workplace, but the story is more complicated.
The skills gap that Bentley University has recently uncovered in its PreparedU study has been steadily widening for some time. The Making the Match research program (Evers, Rush, & Berdrow, 1998), a study of 1,610 individuals across five cohorts — early university, pre-graduate, early career entrant, job change, and stabilized career — showed a gap between what competencies employers needed and the competencies that graduates supplied. The program also discovered a snowball effect of declining preparation: without such basic skills as communication and self-management, more sophisticated skills such as mobilizing innovation and change or managing others were unreachable. The skills supply-demand gap has unfortunately not changed that much in the years since. In fact, it has grown because the context has changed.
The business world that millennials are entering is far more complex than that of the baby boomers and Gen-X’s. Globalization has changed the game. Today’s decision makers are often shooting at a moving target — or several targets at once. As a result, understanding how to work in a culturally diverse business environment is a must. In a recent conversation with a partner from a top accounting firm recruiting at Bentley, I learned that no one makes senior partner at the firm without having worked successfully in a foreign office.
In addition, graduates are competing for jobs with people from around the world. A Massachusetts-based international technology company recently built a second state-of-the-art R&D center, this one in Malaysia. While the R&D facility looks and functions like its American counterpart, of the 203 employees, 200 are Malaysian engineers — all just as (if not more) technically qualified as their American counterparts.
But improved technical knowledge is just the beginning. Graduates have to be able to apply that knowledge in a context of global complexity —in both domestic and foreign locations, working with and for people who come from different cultural backgrounds. Those engineers in Malaysia already have an advantage — they speak English and Malay, as well as a Malaysian dialect, and probably Chinese and/or Hindi or another language of India. And they are used to living and working in a culturally diverse environment. Many American college students haven’t been exposed to this level of diversity, and haven’t needed or developed an adequate level of intercultural effectiveness.
What is the role of higher education in closing this gap? To provide opportunities — not just to experience different cultures, but to learn why they are different, and how students can function effectively within those differences. We must guide our students toward a path of lifelong learning.
And what about the students themselves? To succeed, they’ll need to take on this challenge with an open mind, to look around and recognize that today’s business world extends far beyond U.S. soil. A new, foreign way of doing things should be seen as an opportunity, not an oddity. The sooner American students change the conversation between their ears from “That’s weird, why would they do that?” to “Isn’t that interesting, what can I learn from this?” the better off they’ll be.
Iris Berdrow is Associate Professor of Management at Bentley.