Most business leaders believe innovation is critical for U.S. colleges to remain globally competitive

Photo by Brooks Canaday

At a time of great debate over the value of a col­lege degree, a new national survey reveals a con­cern among U.S. busi­ness leaders about the pipeline of talent pro­duced by Amer­ican col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. While most exec­u­tives express sup­port for the Amer­ican system of higher edu­ca­tion, they also believe the U.S. is falling behind global com­peti­tors and inad­e­quately preparing grad­u­ates to suc­ceed in the modern workforce.

The new survey, the third in a series by North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, presents the views of C-​​suite exec­u­tives, with a par­tic­ular focus on global com­pet­i­tive­ness, the employee skills gap, employer work­force invest­ments, and oppor­tu­ni­ties for policy reform.

According to the new survey, more than half of busi­ness exec­u­tives (54 per­cent) believe the U.S. is lag­ging behind devel­oped and emerging coun­tries when it comes to preparing col­lege grad­u­ates for career success.

The report also high­lights a con­cern from the C-​​suite about the notion of an employee “skills gap.” Nation­ally, 73 per­cent of busi­ness leaders say there is a skills gap among today’s work­force, and an even greater number (87 per­cent) believe that today’s col­lege grad­u­ates lack the nec­es­sary skills to succeed.

“These find­ings under­score a crit­ical call to action for all of us in higher edu­ca­tion to inno­vate,” said Joseph E. Aoun, pres­i­dent of North­eastern. “Busi­ness leaders—who are key part­ners for col­leges and universities—want higher edu­ca­tion to be more expe­ri­en­tial and want us to instill entre­pre­neurial qual­i­ties in our graduates.”

Region­ally, busi­ness leaders have some­what varying views. In Boston, where the con­cern is less wide­spread, only 64 per­cent of exec­u­tives see a skills gap. In Char­lotte, N.C., 71 per­cent are con­cerned about a skills gap, while in Seattle the figure is 76 per­cent. The North­eastern survey over­sam­pled busi­ness leaders in Boston, Char­lotte, and Seattle—the three Amer­ican cities where the uni­ver­sity main­tains campuses.

Among the attrib­utes most impor­tant for col­lege grad­u­ates to pos­sess, busi­ness exec­u­tives rank com­mu­ni­ca­tion, inter­per­sonal skills, and adapt­ability at the top of the list. That echoes the sen­ti­ments of the majority of Amer­i­cans from Northeastern’s August 2013 poll, who said so-​​called “softer skills” such as com­mu­ni­ca­tions and problem solving were most impor­tant. According to the new survey, nearly one-​​third (28 per­cent) of busi­ness leaders believe that very few recent col­lege grad­u­ates actu­ally pos­sess those skills.

Busi­ness leaders are divided on the ques­tion of whether col­lege grad­u­ates will be more (27 per­cent), less (32 per­cent), or equally (39 per­cent) pre­pared for the work­force in the next 10–15 years. The find­ings were con­sis­tent across the sam­ples in Boston, Char­lotte, and Seattle.

In addi­tion to the hur­dles pre­sented by the skills gap, recent grad­u­ates face a job market that is in many ways still recov­ering from the Great Reces­sion. Nearly two-​​thirds of exec­u­tives say the reces­sion impacted their busi­nesses, with the most com­monly cited con­se­quence being a reduc­tion in the number of entry-​​level jobs.

Con­sis­tent with find­ings from Northeastern’s pre­vious two sur­veys, C-​​suite exec­u­tives believe that col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties should develop inno­v­a­tive ways to edu­cate and pre­pare stu­dents for the workforce.

An over­whelming majority of respon­dents (97 per­cent) say that expe­ri­en­tial education—the inte­gra­tion of class­room study with pro­fes­sional experience—is crit­ical to an individual’s suc­cess. A large majority of busi­ness leaders (89 per­cent) also believe the nation’s higher edu­ca­tion system should expand oppor­tu­ni­ties for teaching entrepreneurship.

Other note­worthy regional find­ings include:

•    While most U.S. busi­ness leaders (72 per­cent) cite per­sonal drive as the most impor­tant factor for career suc­cess, busi­ness leaders in Boston and Seattle cite the value of men­tors and advisers at a higher rate than respon­dents nation­ally. While just 27 per­cent of busi­ness leaders across the country place great value on men­tors and advisers, the figure is 45 per­cent of Boston busi­ness leaders and 43 per­cent of their Seattle counterparts.

•    Busi­ness leaders in Seattle tend to be more sup­portive of online col­lege degrees. Nearly 6-​​in-​​10 Seattle exec­u­tives say an online degree pro­vides a sim­ilar quality of edu­ca­tion as tra­di­tional degrees, com­pared to 47 per­cent in Char­lotte and 45 per­cent in Boston.

The survey inter­views were con­ducted by tele­phone among a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sample of more than 500 C-​​suite exec­u­tives and busi­ness leaders in the U.S. from Feb. 3–19, 2014. It includes an over­sample of 300 respon­dents in Boston, Char­lotte, and Seattle. The margin of error is +/​-​​ 4.37 for the national sample and +/​-​​ 5.65 for the regional sample.