The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Won’t work hard? Won’t pay their dues? How business leaders see young workers

(Illustration by Marco Goran Romano)
Placeholder while article actions load

In a study released Tuesday, nearly 70 percent of corporate recruiters said that their company has a hard time managing its younger generation of workers. Among the perceptions from the survey were that recent college graduates are harder to retain, lack a strong work ethic and aren't as willing to pay their dues as previous generations were.

The study, commissioned by Bentley University and conducted by KRC Research, surveyed more than 3,000 business leaders, students, parents, higher-ed administrators and corporate recruiters. It examined these groups' views on the gap between how colleges prepare students for the working world and what employers really need.

With unemployment around 9 percent for recent college grads, and underemployment at nearly 19 percent, many are struggling to find jobs. Yet even those who find work are confronting challenges at the office.

Thirty-five percent of business leaders and recruiters in the survey said the recent grads they hired should get a "C" or lower for job preparedness. And 64 percent said that their business's day-to-day productivity suffers because of recent grads' lack of preparation.

Gloria Larson, the president of Bentley University, says that was part of the motivation behind the study: to figure out how schools could better prepare their graduates for work beyond the ivory tower. "The increasingly higher price point for public and private universities has led everybody to say, 'Geez, is this really worth it?' Especially when you pair it with disappointing unemployment and underemployment data," Larson says.

More than one-third of student and parent respondents in the study said they don't think the education and career preparation you get at universities is worth the cost.

"Your career investment is your college," says Brianna Bourque, a 20-year-old student at American University in Washington, D.C. "When you invest all that time and money, you want to get something out of that."

Some of the preparation that businesses find lacking comes in the area of hard skills, such as technical knowledge and writing ability. Much of it, however, relates to behavior. Nearly 75 percent of the survey's older respondents said they think younger employees don't have a strong work ethic, and another 70 percent said young workers today aren't willing enough to put in time at the bottom of the organization.

Perhaps as a result of this, half of the business professionals who responded to the study said that their companies tend not to invest in young workers' career development, out of a sense that they will change jobs quickly and aren't worth the investment.

Young workers, not surprisingly, had a different take. In the survey, they were much more likely to highly rate their own work ethic and vouch for their willingness to pay their dues. They also had less faith in businesses than older workers showed. Half of the young respondents said they doubt businesses "do the right thing when faced with tough decisions," whereas less than a third of older respondents said the same.

This mutual skepticism between generations, however, was also matched with some mutual shouldering of the blame.

Sixty percent of recent college grads in the study, and 51 percent of business leaders, said it was their own peer group's fault that young people aren't better prepared for the workforce. Meanwhile, nearly all the respondents thought that colleges could do a better job helping students become more useful and attractive to potential employers — and without raising tuition or detracting from academics.

Bourque, for example, has taken it upon herself in the meantime to pick up where the university curriculum leaves off. She's president of American University's consulting club and, though only a sophomore, is already focused on networking and building her résumé with internships.

"My hope is that it all works out in the end," Bourque says, "that this hard work is going to pay off."

Read also:

GRAPHIC: How to get a job after college