What employers want versus what they need

“The communication curricula of Australian universities were singled out as an area of growing concern by several executives we spoke to. These practitioners believe undergraduates are generally ill-equipped to become advisers to senior management,” the 2013 Trends and Issues report from personnel consultants Salt & Shein has said.

The comments highlight two things: first, how little senior executives seem to know about the purposes of tertiary education and the role of lifelong learning; and, second how certain questions get a Pavlovian response from business people.

The blog is not too sure exactly what a young graduate fresh out of uni would be expected to advise senior management on although, if senior management was wise, they might listen to them on social media strategies before they listen to more senior colleagues. But the blog is sure that certain questions directed towards business people always provoke such responses. A quick look at The Australian or The AFR on most days will reveal a cross-section of business people saying Australia has to be more competitive and more productive. Sadly as Tim Colebatch pointed out in The Age last week the two newspapers (he didn’t actually name them but it wasn’t hard to guess who he was talking about) didn’t seem to understand what factors were most important for competitiveness. Like the business leaders they channel, competitiveness and productivity appears to them to simply be a matter of reducing regulation on everyone except unions (where it should be increased) and making it easier to pay people less and get them to work harder.

The products of tertiary education seem to prompt almost as much Pavlovian slobbering. Students are poorly educated and not ready for work. Their skills don’t match the needs of the workplace and universities need to change. Only the rare, and usually successful employers, simultaneously talk about the need for employers and individuals to commit to lifelong learning to acquire the skills they need today and tomorrow. When the blog was part of a team which reviewed the RMIT PR course some years ago we carried out extensive consultation with employers about what they thought should be taught in the undergrad degree. When we totalled up the responses we realised the course would need to be about 20 years long to fit everything the employers said was essential to their employees. Ironically, knowing most of the respondents, it struck the blog that many of them hadn’t yet acquired the knowledge themselves that they as a group were so keen the university should provide to their prospective employees.

Employers are also less than good at predicting what skills might be needed in the future. At employer forums on future trends the blog is constantly amazed at how often employers emphasise the ephemeral, the currently fashionable or the recently fashionable rather than the sorts of skills which allow people to be flexible and adaptable enough to meet the many changes (often unanticipated) they will experience in the 40 odd years they will be working after they graduate.

This is not to say that universities don’t have problems. But most of these problems are not curriculum based but rather products of bureaucracy, either self-imposed or imposed by government, and funding constraints. All communication courses in Australia regularly review their offerings and curriculum and adapt to changing needs consistent with the need to offer some sense of security and order to undergrad entrants who expect the course to provide, over three years, what the curriculum guide says it will.

They do tend to focus a bit on technical skills (partly because it’s what students do most of immediately when they graduate and partly because employers won’t employ people without those skills) but the Salt & Shein report suggests employers want less technical stuff and more strategy, which one respondent claimed PR courses don’t pay attention to. http://www.saltshein.com.au/media/salarys/1/Trends_&_Issues_Survey_2013.pdf

The reality is that such strategic skills come from experience and further study although the fundamentals of strategy planning do get taught. Indeed, the blog itself has been teaching them for more than a decade to undergrads, diploma courses and post-grads. The fundamentals involve – as the report respondents admit themselves – thinking skills and contextual understanding. And that’s exactly one of the major purposes of universities – to provide the foundations for acquiring those skills. Those skills consist of an inquiring mind, research skills, the capacity to critically evaluate information and the capacity to synthesise the findings from this process into something else – like for instance a communication strategy.

The blog is aware of many RMIT graduates, some of whom came to the blog’s firm straight after university, who are currently very senior advisers and managers in large Australian and multinational companies often in non-communications and line management roles. Every Australian PR course could point to similar graduates in similar positions. Most of them didn’t get there simply because they graduated from university but because they, with help from their employers, have spent their working lives acquiring more knowledge, wider skills and the leadership skills essential to being as good managers. They spend time reading the literature in their fields and fields which might just be of interest some time, doing short and long courses, getting post-graduate qualifications, learning from mentors, mentoring others and constantly learning. All of them have also worked hard, but unlike some employers, they know that working hard is not the only factor in success. After all a team of labourers working harder and harder to dig a trench will never be as productive as someone smart enough to use a trench-digger.