November 01, 2016 | By Molly Hayes Sauder, Renee Sefton, and Beverly Evans
TAGS: best practices, competencies, program development, career readiness, journal
NACE Journal, November 2016
Are new college graduates career ready? While commentary in popular media and political discussions may leave one feeling discouraged, a review of recent research suggests the answer isn’t so clear cut.
Certainly, some research supports the idea that there is a disconnect between students’ and employers’ perceptions of recent graduates’ readiness for the work force. For instance, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) found that students’ ratings of their preparedness in terms of communication, ethical judgment, critical thinking, teamwork, creativity, and other skills were invariably higher than employers’ ratings of students’ preparedness in the same areas (Jaschik, 2015).
Additionally, Chegg’s survey on recent graduates’ readiness for the jobs to which they were applying indicated that 50 percent of students felt they were very or completely prepared for a position within their academic field, while only 39 percent of hiring managers agreed (“Bridge That Gap,” 2013). Similarly to the AAC&U study, Chegg’s survey results also revealed a discrepancy between managers and students in rating recent graduates’ abilities in areas such as organization, prioritization, project management, and budget administration as well as in interpersonal skills the researchers labeled “office street smarts,” e.g., teamwork, diversity, communication, persuasiveness. Understandably, such results raise concerns about the extent to which college students are prepared for post-graduation success.
However, other research points to different conclusions about graduates’ career readiness. For example, in summarizing the results of Accenture Strategy’s 2015 U.S. College Graduate Employment Study, LaVelle, Silverstone, and Smith (2015) reported, “This year’s college grads are more practical and job-ready than any crop in recent memory” (p. 2). The authors further commented that “college graduates are entering the job market highly skilled, highly motivated and even highly loyal” (p. 7). In the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) Job Outlook 2016 survey, employers reported general satisfaction with recent graduates’ skills and traits; when asked to grade their recruits in eight areas, the results ranged from A- to B (NACE, 2015). Surely, most individuals would agree that a B is far from failing in both academic and career contexts.
Furthermore, other research yields mixed conclusions about college students’ career readiness. A Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. study (2008) found that employers were more confident in recent graduates’ preparation for success in entry-level positions than in their ability to be promoted. Survey respondents also indicated that, overall, students have sufficient skills and knowledge for the work force but do not appear to excel in any particular areas. Additionally, Chan and Gardner’s (2013) analysis of liberal arts students and their non-liberal arts peers indicated that employers recognize strengths and weakness within both populations. Interestingly, the study also revealed differing opinions among respondents depending on the type of organization in which they worked and the constitution of its employee base.
Despite the diversity of research results, there is compelling evidence that a college degree continues to hold value in the work force. According to research conducted by a consortium of organizations focused on education and employment (“Are They Really Ready,” 2006), college graduates are “better prepared than high school graduates for the entry-level jobs they fill” (p. 11). The majority of employers indicated that high school graduates’ overall preparedness for entry-level positions was “deficient” or “adequate” and that there were no specific skills in which high school students excelled. In contrast, most survey respondents believed that associate- and bachelor’s-degree graduates’ overall readiness was “adequate” and that there were several areas in which college students excelled. Employers also perceived that bachelor’s-level graduates had more areas of excellence than deficiencies, while the other degree levels were associated with more deficiencies.
Moving forward, NACE’s core career readiness competencies (“Career Readiness,” n.d.) may be helpful in ensuring that researchers are defining and examining preparedness in a consistent manner. Additionally, the list of competencies highlights one skill that, arguably, underlies and facilitates students’ ability to synthesize and display the other competencies in the pursuit of their professional goals: career management. As Chan and Gardner (2013) found in their research, employers recognize recent graduates’ difficulties in conveying their career goals as well as the ways in which their skills apply to various positions. The authors commented, “Several respondents stressed that students needed to make better use of career services and that career services should be better integrated into the student’s life from the first year” (p. 19). While the field continues to examine potential gaps between students’ preparedness and employers’ needs, it would also be beneficial to review the ways in which institutions are embedding career management into curricula, as doing this is likely to support efforts focused on the other competencies. The purpose of this article is to provide one example of this type of work.
From its inception in the late 1990s, York College of Pennsylvania’s sport management program has worked collaboratively with the Career Development Center (CDC) to integrate career management competencies into the academic curriculum. As the program was developed, the faculty and administration naturally conducted market research to determine the feasibility and demand for the program, including review of data on employers and professional associations. Early on, the newly hired faculty coordinator for the program also began to work cooperatively with professionals in the CDC to create an academic curriculum that integrates career readiness skills into the program of study.
While all majors share a need for students to develop competency in career management, each has its unique nuances. One such nuance within sport management is that the field is perceived as attractive to many due to the draw of being involved in sport, but students often lack an understanding of the nature of sport-related jobs and the competition that exists to obtain professional positions in the industry. As Clapp (2015) says, “It’s a common misconception that graduating with a sports management degree means you’re on the fast track to a job as General Manager of your favorite Major League baseball team, but nothing could be further from the truth” (para. 18). Instead, aspiring sport professionals must recognize that there are excellent career opportunities in a variety of areas of the sport industry, but these opportunities require a person to be motivated and to patiently work their way up a career ladder (Foster & Dollar, 2010). It was important to the sport management program that students—from those just embarking on the major to those graduating—recognize the diversity of career options available to them and emerge from college with career management competencies that can be used throughout the span of their professional trajectory.
At present, the sport management program and CDC’s collaboration integrates career management through carefully planned, developmentally sequential instructional activities that occur throughout a student’s course of study. This work begins early in a student’s first semester in the major with an online career assessment and planning system to self-assess areas like their interests, skills, values, and personality. As part of an experiential and reflection-focused course, a CDC professional is invited to a class meeting to help students process their self-assessment results and then leads an interactive activity that shows students how to use these results for informed decision-making when exploring careers. Instruction on useful sources of career information is also provided. The students subsequently complete an assignment that allows them to apply the process learned in class to the exploration of a particular career in the sport industry; their ability to thoroughly and critically examine career information in light of self-assessment data is evaluated by the sport management faculty member.
This instructional activity forms the foundation of students’ competency in career management and, because it occurs within the initial weeks of the first semester, creates an immediate understanding of the partnership between the CDC and sport management program.
In their second semester in the major, students receive resume-writing instruction within the context of four sport management practicum courses that span the first four semesters of a student’s academic journey. Each practicum course requires 30 hours of practical experience and mentorship in varying positions within the institution’s department of athletics and recreation as well as in-class meetings with faculty to facilitate academic reflection and professional development. The variety of practical experiences available for the third and fourth practicum courses is substantially greater than for the first two courses, and students generate a resume in the second-semester practicum course in order to apply for their desired practical experiences during the last two courses of the sequence.
CDC staff critique a draft of each student’s resume, and faculty further assess the student’s competency in resume generation. This process also allows students to gain an initial real-life experience of crafting an application for a desired position with authentic results. Simultaneously, it provides another opportunity for students to experience collaboration between the CDC and the sport management program.
Instruction in various career management topics continues through students’ sophomore and junior years. Topics range from effective networking strategies to professional use of social media to portfolio development. Students are required to complete informational interviewing assignments and collaborate with sport professionals on real-life projects in a number of classes within the sport management curriculum.
Collaboration between the sport management program and the CDC intensifies in the second semester of the junior year and first semester of the senior year, as students prepare to engage in a required off-campus capstone internship that will occur in their final semester.
At this point, students must generate a resume and cover letter that is assessed by faculty via a detailed rubric. They also participate in a graded mock interview with a CDC staff member that is assessed via a separate in-depth rubric. The culminating experience for students comes during Sport Management Professional Day, an event where industry professionals from around the country review students’ resumes and cover letters, engage with them in mock interviews, and share expertise via roundtable discussions. Students’ performance in various professional skills are evaluated by the industry professionals, providing valuable feedback to the individual students as well as helpful aggregate data to the sport management program and CDC.
As noted by Cates & Cedercreutz (2008), employer feedback from experiential learning can provide excellent insight into continuous improvement of the curriculum. Accordingly, sport management student performance in required experiential learning (the four practicum courses and the capstone internship) is used to assess students’ career management competency and overall career readiness, as employer assessments of student performance are systematically reviewed with an eye toward better preparing students in the future.
In addition, institution-specific questions on York’s First-Destination Survey have recently provided further evidence supporting the effectiveness of the sport management program and CDC’s work in helping students develop competency in career management. The 2014 and 2015 surveys garnered a response rate of 20 percent among sport management graduates, and there were several particularly striking results from this data. For example, 100 percent of the sport management graduates who responded to the survey indicated that “presentations and/or appointments focused on career management skills” had a moderate or significant impact on their development. Similarly, all but one respondent agreed or strongly agreed that “professional and career development was integrated into [their] academic experience.” Finally, 100 percent of the students agreed or strongly agreed that “York College prepared [them] to be a professional” and that they “received individualized support in developing [their] academic plan and identifying potential career options.” This information suggests that the integration of career management competencies into the academic curriculum, and the work by the faculty and career development professionals that underlies it, is viewed as impactful and relevant to the students.
The collaboration between the CDC and sport management program has been carefully designed, and the results have been subject to ongoing assessments. For those interested in developing a similar effort, the following three suggestions may prove useful.
1. Recognize the ongoing nature of effective collaboration: Both the academic program and the career professionals must recognize that helping students gain career management competency does not occur if it is relegated to being a “side show” in the course of study. Career instruction must occur regularly in developmentally appropriate ways as a student progresses through college. The sport management program recently began a curriculum map related to competencies in career management to ensure that these competencies are being sufficiently introduced, reinforced, and mastered over time. To fully integrate career management into the curriculum, it is ideal to start the collaboration at the earliest phases of program development and to revisit on a regular basis; accreditation and assessment reports or curricular updates can provide natural times to reflect and adjust as needed.
2. Consider who should do what when: Careful thought must be given to which party—faculty or career development professionals—would be most effective at varying tasks within the collaboration. At many institutions, it is unrealistic for career development professionals to take on every career-focused task within a curriculum. For example, it is useful for upper-level students to mock interview with a career development professional who regularly conducts such work and can provide an experience very close to an actual interview along with an accurate assessment of each student’s performance. This process is, of course, very time-consuming. At the same time, these students need their resumes and cover letters critiqued at approximately the same point in the semester. Since students’ resumes were critiqued by the CDC during their first year in the sport management program, the sport management faculty use guidelines and processes provided in informational literature from the CDC to do one-to-one critiques of students’ resumes and cover letters around the same time as the mock interviews are occurring. The collaboration remains strong and effective without taxing either party’s resources. But, while work may be divided among different parties at points, it is beneficial to also ensure that key structural elements remain consistent. For instance, common language and processes, as well as consistency and clarity on any relevant assignment or course details, can be very helpful in ensuring continuity even as different parties take on different instructional tasks.
3. Gather, analyze, and act on data: Finally, ongoing formative and summative assessment of career management competencies is necessary for feedback, buy-in, and decision-making purposes. Formative data complement the curriculum map via learning outcomes, emphasizing that career competencies involve the development of specific skills; summative data reinforce the fact that career competencies are developed over time and not through any single event, assignment, or appointment. Both types of assessments provide language that is relevant to all campus stakeholders, allowing them to see the impact of integrated efforts as well as the value these intentional partnerships have in meeting program, departmental, and institutional goals.
The need for college graduates to be career-ready is clear. At York College, the collaboration between the CDC and the sport management program has allowed for the seamless, purposeful integration of career competencies within the academic curriculum. While this work is by no means perfect, there is evidence to suggest that it has been effective and may be applicable as others generate ideas for similar endeavors.
Are they really ready to work? Employers’ perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce. (2006). Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/FINAL_REPORT_PDF09-29-06.pdf
Bridge that gap: Analyzing the student skill index. (2013, Fall). Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.chegg.com/pulse
Cates, C., & Cedercreutz, K. (2008). Leveraging cooperative education to guide curricular innovation: The development of a corporate feedback system for continuous improvement. Cincinnati, OH: Center for Cooperative Education Research and Innovation, University of Cincinnati.
Chan, A., & Gardner, P. (2013). An arts & science degree: Defining its value in the workplace. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.ceri.msu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Arts-Science-Degree-Employers.pdf
Clapp, B. (2015, November 16). Why a sports management degree will separate you from the competition. Workinsports.com. Retrieved from http://www.workinsports.com/blog/why-a-sports-management-degree-will-separate-you-from-the-competition/
Foster, S. B., & Dollar, J. E. (2010). Experiential learning in sport management: Internships and beyond. Fitness Information Technology: Morgantown, WV.
Jaschik, S. (2015, January 20). Study finds big gaps between student and employer perceptions. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from
LaVelle, K., Silverstone, Y., & Smith, D. (2015). Are you the weakest link? Strengthening your talent supply chain. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insight-2015-accenture-college-graduate-employment-research.aspx
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (n.d.). Career readiness defined. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.naceweb.org/knowledge/career-readiness-competencies.aspx
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2015, November). Job outlook 2016. Full report retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.naceweb.org
Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. (2008, January 9). How should colleges assess and improve student learning? Employers’ views on the accountability challenge. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2008_Business_Leader_Poll.pdf
Molly Hayes Sauder is an assistant professor of sport management at York College of Pennsylvania. In addition to teaching several different classes, she oversees the experiential learning courses required in the curriculum through her role as coordinator for sport management practicum and work experience. She is a former board member of the National Society for Experiential Education and has engaged in research studies on the topic of experiential learning.
Renee Sefton is the former assistant director of career development and current coordinator of student success initiatives at York College. Her administrative experience has included direct student support, program coordination, and assessment in academic advising, career development, and academic probation contexts. Through these distinct yet interrelated roles, she has helped students think critically about the relationship between majors and careers, engage in meaningful experiences that promote professional development, and address challenges impacting academic progression.
Beverly Evans is the assistant dean for career development at York College and advances integrated academic and career development through a comprehensive Career Development Center. She leads the Experiential Advisory Board, working with faculty across the curriculum to advance experiential education on campus. Her professional involvements include NSEE, NACE, EACE, Forum, and regional career consortia.
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