Employers desire specific and broad knowledge in employees

February, 2010

A new survey shows that in the wake of the economic downturn, employers are looking for employees to have a wider set of skills and higher levels of learning than in the past. The survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) found that the majority of employers believe that both broad and major-specific knowledge and skills are needed for career success.

Employers see benefit in an education that helps students acquire both types of knowledge, apply their college learning in real world settings and develop their research and analysis abilities, according to the new research. And 28% of employers also expect to place greater emphasis on hiring four-year college graduates.

HR representatives at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce eventHR representatives at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Grow Minnesota! event, sharing their perspectives on how the recession has changed the job market: (from left) Simon Foster, SpencerStuart; Sue Metcalf, Ecolab and Jan Erickson, Medtronic.

Helping students gain broad knowledge, develop critical thinking skills and have real-world experiences are hallmarks of students' experience at the small, liberal arts colleges and universities that make up Minnesota's Private Colleges. For this story, we talked with business leaders from Medtronic — the Minneapolis-based, Fortune 500 medical technology company — and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Both confirmed that they value these qualities. They shared other traits employers look for — and what they'll need in the future.

Agile learners wanted
"We look for people who have been exposed to a broad way of thinking and who can view things from different angles and perspectives," said Paul Erdahl, vice president of global leadership and talent development at Medtronic. He noted that a bachelor's degree is required for many roles these days and many Medtronic positions require an advanced degree. Candidates who stand out have had varied experiences, they've stretched themselves, taken on leadership roles, understand the diversity of the world and bring energy and ideas, Erdahl said.

The company also looks for people who have learning agility. "We will need a workforce invested in continual learning, with people who can grow on the job," Erdahl said. "Our mindset is to hire people who have potential for the future."

Erdahl predicts that jobs will be different in five years: "people don't even know what job they'll be doing then." Medtronic will need people with broad and transferable skills as well people with specialized skills and disciplines, Erdahl said.

Standout candidates
There are some differentiators that help determine which candidates will best fit Medtronic's needs, according to Amy Wilson, director of corporate human resources at Medtronic. "We look for candidates who are self-aware, who have a passion for our work, and who fit our mission-driven culture."

Wilson said the differences become apparent in de-briefing sessions following candidate interviews. "Although many candidates have impressive résumés, how they achieve their results can be a significant differentiator.  Our leaders tend to steer away from candidates with a sense of entitlement, instead selecting those who are more humble, collaborative, and relationship-oriented.  The understanding that Medtronic's mission is larger than any single individual contributes to the success of these candidates."

Things are changing, Erdahl confirmed. "Medtronic employees will need to be adaptive and responsive; a liberal arts background does help prepare people for this."

Versatility the key
Bill Blazar, senior vice president for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that the workforce is changing for small and mid-sized employers too. "For future hires, they'll be looking for people with more versatility," he said.

Although major-specific skills are important, employers want to hire individuals who are flexible and creative, Blazar said. "They have to be well-rounded, curious, good problem-solvers and able to handle a variety of situations — this goes to the heart of a liberal arts education."

Many jobs are permanently gone because of the 2008-2009 recession, Blazar believes. In their place he foresees a lot of new small business enterprises being created that will offer great opportunities for recent college graduates. "They might have to temper their salary expectations, but they will get more responsibility quicker than they would at a larger firm," he said.

A recent conversation Blazar had with a manager at a mid-sized manufacturing company illustrated the shift toward more well-rounded employees. "This guy was looking for a project design engineer. He told me he talked to graduates from large engineering schools and wasn't satisfied. When he turned to a smaller college, he found candidates who had engineering knowledge and were creative and practical — they could design things that could actually be built."

Learning outcomes matter
Employers who responded to the AAC&U survey are looking to colleges and universities to produce graduates equipped to deal with an increasingly complex workplace. They called for an emphasis on these outcomes:

  • Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world
  • Intellectual and practical skills
  • Personal and social responsibility
  • Integrative learning

Find out more about liberal arts education. Read more about the research.

Related Topics: Career value