What Employers Want
By Teri Fritsma
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A series of listening sessions around the state will help MnSCU shape its future program offerings.
One of the challenges faced by many businesses — even in this era of high unemployment — is finding quality workers. Employers say it can be difficult to find the right people with the right skills to meet their workforce needs.
To gain a clearer understanding of what businesses want from workers, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) partnered with DEED and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce last spring to conduct a series of listening sessions around the state.
The goal is to help MnSCU better align its programs with employer needs — that is, to prepare the right number of graduates for available jobs and to ensure that graduates have the right skills and knowledge they need to excel at those jobs.
Known as the Workforce Assessment Initiative, the effort involved 44 listening sessions statewide with employers in six industry segments: health care (nine meetings), manufacturing (12 meetings), engineering (five meetings), energy (five meetings), information technology (six meetings), and transportation (seven meetings). About 1,200 people attended the sessions, including about 45 percent from businesses, 39 percent from education, and 16 percent from community organizations and similar groups.
Employers at the meetings were asked the following questions:
- Thinking about new applicants or recent hires, what qualifications are you currently looking for or needing but not finding in this occupation? Consider key areas, such as: skills, combinations of skills, credentials, experience, education, soft skills.
- Thinking about incumbent workers, what qualifications are you currently needing but not finding? What skills do your incumbent workers lack?
- Thinking about the changes and trends in the next one to three years that may affect your industry, what is the likely implication for your workforce?
- How can the Minnesota higher education system respond to both your current and future workforce needs?
Each meeting was an open-ended discussion among employers that lasted about an hour. Representatives from MnSCU and community groups attended the meetings to listen, and employer comments were recorded for transcription and analysis.
Employer comments and discussion from the meetings are being analyzed using qualitative analytic techniques. Two common themes emerged in all of the sessions, however.
1. Soft Skills are Important
“Soft skills” is a somewhat imprecise term, meaning different things to different people. In the listening sessions employers used it to refer to both complex and teachable skills such as project management, conflict resolution, and problem-solving, as well as more basic attributes such as showing up for work on time, being flexible, and being accountable as an employee. Employers stressed the importance of these non-technical skills, saying workers who don’t have them are not only ill-equipped to carry out important job duties, but are less likely to be hired in the first place. Illustrative comments included the following:
- Finding the right technical skills combined with the ability to communicate and collaborate is the biggest challenge.
- Employees need to understand new ways to look at business and need to be innovative.
- Communication is as important as technical skills.
- Even when applicants have good qualifications, they are hired based on personality and soft skills.
- We need diversity and cultural sensitivity training.
- Registered nurses with advanced degrees can “hit the ground running,” but they lack critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
- Customer service orientation and basic work expectations such as being on time, professional dress, following rules and procedures, etc., are all lacking.
- As communication via technology has increased, it seems communication “in person” has suffered.
- Workers in information technology (IT) often deal with several internal and external customers. Employers try to find people who are going to be easy to work with. Much of the interview process is focused on interpersonal skills and communication skills. Finding these skills is sometimes harder than finding the technical skills.
- New nursing graduates have sufficient technical skills, but softer skills are lacking.
- Technical jobs are hard to fill and will continue to be hard to fill. Technical skills are key, but even a lack of low-tech skills can be overcome with good customer service skills.
- When IT workers fail, it is not for lack of technical ability. The failure comes from lack of competency in strategic relationships, communications, and project execution.
2. Hands-On Experience Needed
In the listening sessions employers also frequently expressed the importance of hands-on experience. Experience takes different forms depending on the industry, but employer comments suggested that, in general, new graduates will be far more marketable and valuable if they have gained some practical experience during their educations. The following are illustrative comments from employers during the listening sessions:
- Students should have “ride alongs” or job shadowing to gain exposure to the job.
- Students need to know what business they are going into. Information technology is often a 24-7 job. Work experience is really important, even fast food experience. Those jobs are tough. People don’t know what a good job is if they never had a bad job.
- Some kind of experience, such as an internship, is critical.
- Manufacturers would like to see graduates with a little more background in working on the machines, more hands-on experience.
- We look for those who have had internships.
- It is hard for a new graduate to have an appreciation of how workforce efficiency processes, such as lean strategies, are used in the workplace.
- There is a shortfall in mechanical engineering of hands-on skills in production facilities.
- We need more experience at the bedside.
- It’s important for colleges to provide fellowships, externships and residency programs to aid in transition from student to employee.
- Students need to get started programing in high school. They should also get used to working on project teams in high school.
- Students should have increased clinical experience prior to entering the workforce.
- Specific skills training could be accomplished using an intensive simulation experience.
- Applicants with work experience of any kind are more highly valued than graduates with no experience.
- There do not appear to be enough clinical skills/experiences for students. Examples include wound care and IVs. More internship experiences are needed.
- New graduates lack clinical experience and knowledge of electronic health record technology.
The data collected from the spring 2012 meetings will be analyzed and provided to MnSCU administrators and faculty. In the coming months, with data in hand, institutions will have a clearer idea of how to align their programs to meet employer demands. The system will respond by evaluating courses or programs, developing regional or state collaborations, and forming new or renewed industry partnerships.
Other listening sessions are under way to cover the agricultural, mining, natural resources, and financial services industries, among others.
To learn more about the MnSCU Workforce Assessment Initiative, visit the website: www.mnscu.edu/business.