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Mismatch Between Graduates’ Information Skills and Employers' Needs

June 26, 2013

By Alison J. Head
Founder and Director, Project Information Literacy

Last year as part of an IMLS planning grant study awarded to Project Information Literacy (PIL), our research team at the University of Washington’s Information School discovered a pattern about how recent college graduates find and use information in the workplace.

We held focus groups with 33 recent graduates from Harvard University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Puget Sound, and Santa Rosa Junior College to learn how they carried out research tasks in the workplace. We also interviewed 23 employers at the Smithsonian Institution, Microsoft, Marriott International, KPMG, and elsewhere to find out how well they thought their new hires were faring.

We found that the social side of research – engaging others in face-to-face interactions to find information – is a competency that employers say they need the most. But the employers we interviewed rarely saw this skill demonstrated by today’s college-educated employees, whether the new hires were researchers, administrators, market analysts, engineers, programmers, nurses, musicians, or teachers.

As one employer explained, “Grads miss that you can reach out to other people and get information too. Research is not all factual, there are other experiential factors we need to think about in the workplace — internal business factors like budget, global economies, things like that.”

Nearly three-fourths of the participants in our focus groups had full-time jobs. Almost all of them said a primary part of their jobs required them to find, evaluate, and use information to solve problems.

For instance, a young nurse said she investigated new intervention methods, a project manager at a NGO reported she combed the web to find an event speaker, and an analyst said he tried to research whether the draft of a marketing plan was relevant to his company’s potential customers.

Most graduates reported that they went to the first answer they found on Google. But the large majority of employers we interviewed said they needed college hires to carry out comprehensive research using both online sources and in-depth discussions with co-workers.

The mismatch we discovered between the “instant information” that graduates tended to deliver and what employers needed have important implications for preparing today’s graduates for the workplace.

Teaching today’s students which channels of communication work best – and when and where – will go a long way toward making them career-ready. Or, as one employer we interviewed said, “Those hires that are the most successful are the ones who can find that balance between the computing workplace and the person-to-person workplace.”

Not all information problems are created equal. Some are resolved with facts and figures plucked from a Google results page, while others require discussion and first-hand, contextualized information. Social research is an essential skill for the 21st century.

Of course, today’s person-to-person, social workplace is not always physical. The challenge for all of us is to seamlessly and effectively integrate physical and virtual research with connections and interactions.

Alison J. Head, Ph.D. is the founder and director of Project Information Literacy, a national study conducted in partnership with the University of Washington’s Information School. She is a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The full report on the IMLS study is entitled, “Learning Curve: How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace.”


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