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The new skills imperative: Reconnecting work with the workforce

Organizations need to retool their hiring and enterprise learning strategies to meet new and recent college graduate skills and job expectations.

Overview

Are today’s newest employees prepared with the skills they need for 21st-century jobs? Are employers successfully equipping their workers with such skills? New Accenture research points to a deep disconnect between today’s potential employers and young talent pools represented by upcoming and recent college graduates.

The results of the Accenture 2013 College Graduate Employment Survey strongly suggest that rather than simply bemoaning the inability to find employees with the skills required for available jobs, organizations must step up with new and more comprehensive enterprise learning strategies.

For companies to remain competitive and drive both innovation and growth, they need to reconnect work with the workforce—planning and executing their talent strategies in a way more attuned to today’s educational and economic realities.

Companies should identify and hire workers based not only on current skills but also on potential—then make the commitment to develop the specific suites of skills those employees will need to make an impact on organizational performance over time. Just as important, companies need to deepen their involvement with educational institutions to improve the fit between graduates’ skills and the jobs available.

Underqualified? Overqualified? Misqualified?
How do we know there is a disconnect between work and the workforce? One important finding from the Accenture survey is that corporate attitudes toward “workforce readiness” are masking a deeper mismatch between talent pools and the organizations looking for talent.

It has become common in recent years for companies and their recruiters to lament the lack of job readiness of many of their new hires. But our research points to a much more complicated situation. From the graduates’ perspective, many of them feel overqualified, not underqualified, for the jobs available to them. Of the 2011 and 2012 college graduates surveyed, 41 percent believe they are in a job that does not actually require the college degree they possess.

Many others are in jobs that are out of alignment with their backgrounds. About half of the 2011-2012 graduates surveyed (47 percent) were employed in jobs not matched to their field of study. Of those, 45 percent indicated that they took their current job because of personal financial pressure—they took what was available because they could not afford to wait for a job more precisely matched to their skills. Another 32 percent reported that too few jobs were available in their chosen area. Just 8 percent said that their educational institution had failed to prepare them to work in their chosen field.

Shortfalls in ongoing training and development
Though they may feel overqualified, recent college graduates cannot be accused of being overconfident. Significant percentages are aware that their degree and their skillset are hardly a ticket to a meaningful career. Almost two-thirds of the 2011-2012 graduates (63 percent) said that to continue to get the kinds of jobs they truly desire over time, they would need more training.

Where would they get that training? For the most part, new or recent hires with a college degree expect their employers to provide it. Among the 2011-2012 graduates, 67 percent looked to on‑the‑job training to deepen their skills, and 51 percent expected their employers to provide formal enterprise learning opportunities.

Many of those graduates will be sorely disappointed, according to our findings. Consider that 77 percent of pending 2013 college graduates expect their first employer to provide formal training to develop their skills—but that only 48 percent of 2011-2012 graduates reported that they actually received such training on their first job.

Employers’ unrealistic expectations
Based on these findings, as well as on our work with hundreds of companies around the world, it is hard to deny the conclusion that many employers have overblown expectations for the skills of new hires—believing falsely that recent college graduates should be able to hit the ground running. Because of that misplaced expectation, companies are not making adequate commitments to, and investments in, the long-term training that would attract, develop and retain the talent needed for their companies to achieve high performance.

Making the reconnect
How can employers reconnect work and the workforce? Accenture recommends that organizations retool their current talent strategies along three lines.

Hire based on potential and “developable fit”
Companies may lose the talent game in the long run if they try to find “perfect” candidates—those who have the exact type and depth of skills an employer needs to fit specific job profiles. Computer applications that search resumes for key words regarding skills and particular job experiences have only exacerbated this tendency.

In fact, it is more important to look for “developable fit”: Do employees have good general skills as well as an ability to learn and respond nimbly to new opportunities? Are they interested in ongoing training and open to pursuing varied experiences within the company? Such characteristics are better predictors of success in many cases than specific and overly restrictive skills profiles.

This approach can also help to counteract an unintended consequence of today’s hiring environment: With so many applicants, it is tempting to hire the “most qualified” person. Yet if such people are in fact overqualified and end up disengaged in their work, lower productivity and poorer performance may be the result.

Commit to training as part of the overall employment package
Ongoing employee training and development is now essential to core business strategy. Training should not be something offered simply to provide basic skills to reach initial job competence, nor just an occasional perk thrown at workers in piecemeal fashion. The nature of work itself—and, therefore, the types of skills needed to succeed at that work—is changing quickly, and companies need to retool their enterprise learning strategies at a more fundamental level. Organizations must identify latent talent in young employees and bring that talent to life. There is an important social value here, as well: Employers have a responsibility to offer enterprise learning not only to help their companies succeed in the long term (by providing their workers with the skills the business needs) but also to ensure that new generations of employees can contribute to the overall growth and health of the economy.

Work more closely with educational institutions
To bridge the disconnect between school and work, employers should also forge closer partnerships with educational institutions, helping to shape curriculums so that graduates have a broader base of relevant skills. Companies can deepen their ongoing relationship with universities and community colleges, providing more information and greater transparency into the world of work so that individuals better understand the jobs and careers available, as well as the skills needed to succeed at those jobs.

This means providing a rich, thorough and experience-based understanding of the everyday work experience and the capabilities needed to perform such work. Communications programs can include workforce video tours, simulations of real work and informational interviews in which employees describe their roles.

Conclusion

The Accenture 2013 College Graduate Employment Survey identifies a persistent mismatch between the skills of available workers, especially recent university graduates, and the skills that companies believe are needed to drive growth and competitive advantage.

Who bears the primary responsibility for reconnecting work and the workforce? By and large, employers themselves must rise to the occasion with more comprehensive talent strategies and enterprise learning programs more appropriate to today’s business environment.

When it comes to creating a talent advantage, it’s not just about who employees are when they join an organization. It’s about who they become over time.

Authors

David Smith leads the Accenture Talent & Organization group within Accenture Management Consulting. He is based in Hartford, CT.

Katherine LaVelle leads the Accenture Talent & Organization group for North America within Accenture Management Consulting. She is based in Washington, D.C.