Universities, businesses step in to help students with professionalism

Posted March 29, 2017

Recent college graduates struggle with professionalism skills, but universities and businesses are working to fill in the gaps.

Studies have shown many college students are well equipped in the skills that involve science and technology, but they are lacking in those — such as dress and presentation — that will help them move up into leadership or management positions.

One study revealed that while 87 percent of recent graduates feel well prepared for their first job after earning their diplomas, only half of hiring managers agreed with them.

“It is a real issue,” said Derrick Edwards, president of AGS Data Systems, a data analytics internet-based software company in Hudson, Wisconsin.

“The difficulty is more firmly rooted in the technology-based industry,” added Edwards. “In education, music is not going to change much over time. None of that really becomes outdated. But in computer science, the industry changes so quickly. Many recent graduates have not had an opportunity to work on their problem-solving skills.”

Not only are businesses trying to fill the gap, but so are students. Some of them are working themselves to make changes.

“There definitely is a trend that graduates are not prepared,” said James Vandenbergh, UW-River Falls student body vice president, who is majoring in economics, business management and English. “We need to take control of our education and seek out the resources to make the change ourselves.”

Professionalism is considered required for recent college graduates to have a successful career. Graduates with these skills are more valuable in the professional world, according to a report about work-force preparedness.

The study also showed that most people expect a college education to equip them with these skills, but on most campuses, it’s up to students to attend workshops or job fairs that address professionalism — it’s not something that is part of the curriculum.

“All of the professional career aspect… is optional for the student,” said Melissa Wilson, director of Career Services at UW-River Falls. She has been working with students and others to figure out how to help students obtain these skills before they graduate.

One way students can learn how to conduct themselves is at a professional etiquette dinner. Vandenbergh has attended the Etiquette Dinner that Career Services hosts a couple times a year. He also has tapped into other resources.

“My uncle has had a huge influence on me,” said Vandenbergh. “When I go to a professional setting I always wear a suit.” His uncle works for a California technology company and has given Vandenbergh books such as “Dress for Success,” which have really helped him understand what it means to look and be professional.

“If you are wearing flip flops to a job fair, you won’t get through that gate. We send you back home and you can come back,” said Wilson. “It is not acceptable and it really surprises at least 10 students on that day.”

The university works to inform students, but there are many who don’t see or get the information. Even basic things, such as shining their shoes or ironing their shirt, can be new information for some students, said Wilson.

“Everybody defines professionalism different, but it is the most important aspect of getting a job after college,” said Wilson. “For me it’s about how others are viewing us. Are we consistent?”

Wilson said there are lots of resources and opportunities for students and alumni to help sharpen their professionalism skills in the Career Services office at UW-River Falls and she encourages them to stop by.

“This really isn’t anything new, it’s an age old problem,” said Edwards. “Transitioning students from a place where the professors teach and then test, doesn’t really match what industry does, which is more planning, executing and analyzing. We have a long way to go when it comes to teaching students how to problem solve, which could eventually land them in leadership roles.”