Are College Grads ready for the working world?

August 24, 2010 — 42 Comments

I am going to start off right in the beginning and say that I am only talking about people in the design profession. While some of what I think definitely holds true for everyone, I think I could effectively argue either side of this question. To get straight to the answer, in short … I don’t care.

People go to college to learn how to learn and to train their brain to assess problems and determine what possible steps could or should be taken. You go to a technical college to learn how to do a thing or perform a specific job. You want to learn how to work on HVAC equipment – there’s a school for that and we need  people to do those jobs – they are important, but it’s not the same set of criteria used to measure the success of college graduate from a typical four-year program (or five-year program in my case … okay, technically it took me six years but is this the time and place to be talking about that?).

What I am really talking about is critical thinking – a skill that requires good logic skills but demands that the thinker employ accuracy, relevance, clarity and significance. I know what you are thinking (I don’t) …

You: Significance, really? You design thingy’s, just how highly do you think of yourself?

Regardless of what I design, however small, there are reasons for the moves I make. It’s not to often that my motivation is solely based on thinking something would look cool. There is an ebb and flow to design, a push here requires a pull there – there is a never-ending series of compromises that get made to achieve a finished product. Some of those compromises aren’t even made by me and are therefore completely out of my control. That’s why doing what I do required critical thinking – it is not a craft. As a result, I don’t count on the graduates that come to me looking for a job to be ready to enter the working world. I can’t get the most valuable piece of information I want off someone’s resume. I can look at it an infer if they are intelligent and that’s what might get them in the door. What I am interested in are finding smart and articulate communicators who have a passion for something. If you are smart, you’ll figure the rest out while learning how to make it your own. That last bit is the most important part because it implies ownership in the work which I can then infer that you will have pride in the final product, you will want it to be good for yourself rather than simply being able to check the done box on the to-do list and everyone knows that we are own harshest critics.

I always wonder what people expect from the recent college graduates they hire. Transitioning between college life and the workforce is a huge process and who among us is great at anything the first time you try it? Performing well in a new job also isn’t just about being able to do work; it’s about working with others and the challenges that group dynamics always present. It’s also about learning how to conduct yourself with integrity and professionalism – you should also consider that these recent grads have to discover the value of learning for the sake of learning. Prior to graduation their lives were based on achieving some sort of resolution to every project – there was a summation line to everything they did. The process of learning how to delegate authority and accept responsibility for things out of their control is a painful one and I expect to help steward people through this transformation – a sort of professional pay-it-forward process.

We do things a particular way in our office and there are particular things that I want done a specific way. I will take the time to teach you those things but the rest … that’s up to you and your big brain. (line forms to the left please). For what it’s worth here are some considerations or tips, whatever, that I think grads entering the workforce should know:

  • You don’t know as much as you think and we both know it. Don’t pretend to know something you don’t.
  • College Grads get entry-level jobs and tasks. It is what it is, you aren’t the Big Man on Campus anymore.
  • College hasn’t prepared you for everything; accept it and be flexible.
  • Are you looking for a job or a true calling?
  • Be prepared to discover what personal accountability really means; there are no do-overs, extensions or free-passes for “next time”.
  • Work on your ability to communicate and actively listen
  • See your task through to completion. In other words – finish what you start.

These don’t sound too hard do they? They aren’t but they don’t come naturally and most graduates haven’t been asked to be accountable to someone other than themselves at this level before. When I step back and evaluate a new hire or a recent graduate, my criteria is almost always based on their ability to learn new things and their capacity to process information. College is a period of evolution and transition for most people and despite how hard you work or how hard you party, the grades you receive in your English 101 class will never enter my radar screen. I suppose there is something to be said for the student who does study hard and makes really great grades – this speaks to preparation and responsibility which are also desirable traits in a college grad. I am probably speaking from personal experience in that I blossomed late and if you took a look at the grades I got when I was “transitioning” in school, as a possible future employer, you would have missed out on what I feel would have been your best employee. I get to work early, I leave late, I am a self-starter, and like to think I am extremely articulate and I am a good communicator. Uhmm… what school did I attend to hone those skills?  That’s right – the School of Life (Ooooooh … I got that line in my post!).

If you are a design professional, you will also know that the different college programs out there have different areas of focus to them. For example, I went to The University of Texas at Austin, where admittance is extremely competitive and it is a demanding and difficult program. They didn’t try to teach us all the things that we would need to know when we graduated – in fact, it’s almost like they went out of their way to avoid that sort of thing. The curriculum they focused on covered the areas that I wouldn’t be exposed to once I graduated. They rightfully made the conclusion that if I was smart enough to get into their program, I could figure out the technical aspects of the finer points of building detailing … and they were right.

Going to College, and therefore graduating from college, isn’t about teaching people how to solve a particular problem or perform a certain task. Going to college is about learning how to learn so you can hopefully solve new problems.


Bob signature


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  • The biggest complaint
    from recruiters and managers is that school leavers are ill-prepared for the
    world of work. Managers express
    frustration and are becoming despondent to hiring persons just leaving school
    or persons without the adequate work experience. Job Seekers themselves are not
    coping well with the current job market situation and that kind of bewilderment
    should concern all. Most young persons who are just leaving school are
    oblivious about manager’s expectations; and sadly most managers feel they are
    unprepared for the world of work.

    While most colleges and
    universities are preparing graduates academically, persons graduating still
    feel lost as to what is their next move. Those who have equipped themselves
    with the skills required not just find a job but keep their jobs

  • Benjamin B.

    This post kinda opened up my eyes a little bit. I’m a 5th year student graduating in May. I’ve been kind of upset with my school for not teaching me popular programs such as AutoCAD and Revit, but only teaching Rhinoceros.

    Now I have a whole new look on that and it’s really funny because I’ve actually been teaching myself these programs over the Summer. Which is basically exactly what you’ve just talked about with the added bonus of keeping myself focused on learning during my precious Summer down time.

    Thanks for the insight!

  • Mark Mc Swain

    While in college I was fortunate to be there during the time that Bill Caudill* would return and give lectures at his alma mater.

    His lectures were filled with Socratic gems, particularly for being utterly natural and consequential to his teaching style (which ought not be surprising from a former professor).

    One of the “takeaways” from those lectures that I have carried with me was the progression of experience in humans. Almost all human endeavors are a series of steps, where one builds up to a peak, to then transition to the bottom of the next step. We start out in elementary school, rise to the superior grades, and the knowledge and responsibility entailed therein. To be thrust to the bottom of the heap in middle school. Rise to the top again, to start again at the bottom in high school. To again rise to heights, only to become a lowly, know-nothing college freshman. For those surviving that pinnacle of being a know-everything college sophomore, to achieve the pinnacle of baccalaureate. To go out in the world, to, /tre suprise/ know very little at all. This progression is a life-long thing. All parents begin as know-nothing, and rise up the learning curve to become, grand-parents (who _do_ know everything).

    The other .great take-away from Prof Caudill’s lectures was that the profession of architecture was very much a teaching profession. We both educate and learn from out clients. We both educate and learn from the interns (if at the cost of torn-out, shocked-to-gray, hair). We learn and educate from our life experiences.
    This is something that helped me break out of my academic malaise in the middle part of my college time.

    *William “Bill” Caudill was a former professor at Texas A&M, who, with John Rowlett and Wallie Scott founded the success story which is CRS, later CRS Sirrine, now CRS Capital

  • Brian Paletz

    Great take on a topic that never seems to end. I think the biggest thing lacking from education now is preparing students to collaborate with those that are not in architecture. Clients, cities, engineers, etc. all need to be worked with in the real world, but it seems to be one of the biggest hurdles for younger employees.

    • great observation – how do you think we work that into the curriculum?

      Thanks Brian

      • Brian Paletz

        I think that becomes an even bigger discussion.
        Get more professionals into the teaching sector, and less of the straight from being a student to being the teacher type from what I have observed. This though would probably require a more expansive schedule for typical projects to allow professionals the time to become more involved and better compensation to allow for the time away from working on the “projects that pay the bills”.

        • maybe an easier way to accomplish this would be to bring professionals into the studio for mini-lectures or have them participate in the crits (but not the juries…) Even my idea is easy to shot holes in, a lot of schools don’t want to focus on an integrated education – it seems that the mentality is more about exposing the students to more conceptual thought processes and they intentionally stay away from more practical matters. I can see the advantages of both methods.

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  • Darrell Allen Caraway

    Very good. Reminds me of how did it backwards, learned on the job then went to college to learn how to learn. But. It worked out. I now joined AIA after 25 years.

  • Interesting and insightful article. University is not about the practicalities of architecture, but the world view. I echoed the thoughts on our blog earlier this year, here.REPLY

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  • Just ran across this blog and for some reason just had to comment…college whether it is technical or academic is a form of life hazing. Generally when you want to enter a group you have to pass the initiation. There are exceptions but normally for a white collar job you need a 4 year piece of paper…Higher management a MBA seems to be the new prerequisite. I went back to school for my “piece of paper” so I could obtain more money doing the same work I taught myself to do. I got my piece of paper and many stories of pompous professors that fit the description of if you can’t work teach. My thought is if we had a better public schools that they paid the teachers like professors and expected kids to preform there would be no need for 13th-16th grade we call college. I think critical thinking really is the business way to say common sense. I am ranting probably because of the money I spent on school

  • Andrew

    Yup, college is learning how to learn. Couldn’t agree more. Nice post.

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  • Hi Bob: I love so many ideas here. First, critical thinking and learning to learn, that’s so true. Maybe as Nick says we already learn that in life, but I for one learned problem solving and the process of how to think critically in college. an essential skill. Second, excellent advice list, many people need to read that. Third, so true about group dynamics and the ability to understand and accept your part in the larger team to be a true contributing member. I bet people that you mentor become fantastic architects. well done, Cindy @urbanverse

  • well stated

  • Ha! That is why we call it In Detail Boot camp around here…many do not make the cut. It is not easy place to work but when I tell any of my people, hey I hear the bank is hiring…they get an ill look on their face. Day in Day out..same thing….would shoot myself in the head. I would look forward to a hold up maybe?

  • Nick: I think Colleges MUST teach it…every teacher: every class in some way.

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  • Anonymous

    Alexandra – my doctor would disagree with you. Having run all the appropriate test, she would in fact tell you that I am soft and gooey on the outside and crunchy on the inside. I’m pretty sure that’s not good.

    Medieval History huh? You probably did get some good experience at research and writing in college.

  • Your post is like you; crunchy on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside! In other words, you are very direct, yet anyone lucky enough to work with you must get a heck of a lot of good training! I work with college students, and you are right – they are NOT prepared with work skills such as team work, taking responsibility and follow-through. Some are, of course, but in the main, there are way too many college grads who have not had the chance to reap the “rewards” of their own choices.
    As my undergrad degree was in Medieval History, I can definitely say that a college degree is more a way to prove you can think and do research as opposed to being an employable expert!
    Great post.

  • Being a recent graduate, I think these are great points to remember. I will also add to your point #2 and say that recent grads might not even get entry level. I believe the ability to adapt and to search out ways to stay involved in the design community is important, if one does not have any job prospects within the field.

  • Anonymous

    Both the partners in my office graduated from the University of Arizona and they are pretty sharp so UofA has to have something going for it right?

    Not everyone is supposed to come back – wanting to be good at a thing and trying really really hard doesn’t mean that you will be good at a thing.

  • Zane D.

    love this post. I’m an older architecture student, changing careers after 10 years in the IT field. I’m hoping those on-the-job lessons you discuss hear work to my advantage as i compete against the youngsters for a job in a couple of years. in other words, I’m hoping more potential employers also understand what you are talking about here!

  • Anonymous

    has to be developed from childhood but the process never stops – how can it? A large part of that learning process is experiential though -touch a hot stove you get burned, next time you don’t touch it. You can be told that it’s hot but you know that eventually you will find our first hand. Time is a great educator when it comes to critical thinking because knowing what you don’t know is always the first step.

  • Anonymous

    That’s funny – I remember that sitcom but I will probably be hitting YouTube up over lunch for a refresher.

    Whenever people ask me to explain in great detail what it is I am asking them I always respond with that fact that I can’t give them great detail because I haven’t solved the problem, that’s what I am asking them to do.

  • Well great minds think alike although you make it sound so much more high brow! I guess because I graduated from the University of Arizona..which was not so tough to get into:)

    But of course, my own soapbox is about critical thinking as well and I think it simply sums up the whole thing. I can “train” anyone to do what they need to do in my business but I have a tougher time to get them to “think” and make good decisions. Thus “Cheryl boot camp”..some do not come back to tell the tales….

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  • Always spot on, Bob. Brings us to a new question though… Can college teach critical thinking or is it something that is developed in us from birth? Great read!

  • Yes, critical thinking and just learning how to fit together all these parts of how to do anything when you are facing life without an operator’s manual. I get so frustrated with employees who want me to create a detailed “to do” list for them every day. (they don’t last long) I just like giving large vision stuff, being specific about things I need to have done a certain way and then “figure it out!” Here’s your budget and no, you can’t have more. My favorite sit com ever was a late ’70s show called “Carter Country” where the mayor would respond to Sheriff Roy’s request for detail by saying, “Handle it, handle it” Anyone who has worked around our office and has NOT googled Carter Country by the end of their first day usually doesn’t last the week 🙂

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  • You nailed it with Critical Thinking. That skill is truly the only one that equips anyone for the real world, college grad or not. Nice post.

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