These days, many college graduates struggle to find jobs. Learn what employers are looking for, how to gain skills, and what's needed to succeed in today's workforce.

What Makes a Recent College Graduate Employable?

  • Many college graduates struggle to find jobs due to a lack of practical, professional skills.
  • College career centers can provide guidance for students and alumni who need help.
  • Certificates, internships, and job shadowing are good ways to build your skill inventory.

Gone are the days when a four-year degree is all you needed to enter the workforce. Now, not only are employers looking for more from their new hires, but also college students themselves are searching for the types of degrees that will help them obtain — and keep — a job.

A recent article in The Washington Post explains how there has been a shift in the types of degrees and jobs students are seeking. Students increasingly want job and financial security over careers they might consider personally fulfilling.

A 2020 BestColleges survey supports this conclusion. Compared to older generations, millennials were more likely to think of college majors in terms of potential career opportunities over softer concerns like personal enrichment.

Given the tough economic realities we live in, it's perfectly understandable why today's college students want an education that will give them a stable job and income.

A recent college grad in glasses and a hoodie smiles as he responds to an interview question.

What Employers Want From College Students

The skills that employers used to look for back when our parents were applying for jobs aren't necessarily the same as the skills that those interviewing today's college graduates want.

CEO and founder of RegAlytics and 8of9 Mary Kopczynski, JD/Ph.D., noted that she is mainly on the hunt for enthusiasm. "I like bright eyes, interest, and the natural excitement that lights up when I explain what we are building," she said. "It's the stuff you can't really fake."

Candidates must also possess bare-minimum skills, such as a basic knowledge of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel — though Kopczynski is looking for more. "I like to see people that have taken on challenges and overcome obstacles. Most importantly, I like people who know how to sell themselves," she said.

[F]igure out how to tell your story in a way that will make employers understand the work you’ve done outside the classroom.

To effectively sell yourself, Kopczynski advises discussing other things you did in college, beyond just attending courses. "Even if you did nothing else but eat popcorn and play video games, there has to be a way to highlight your accomplishment," she said.

For example, Kopczynski suggests that if, say, you had organized a dorm-wide World of Warcraft competition with over 30 participants, 30% of whom were female (which, she notes, is 5% higher than the national average of female gamers), that's something she would like to know about.

Take a hard look at what you've accomplished throughout your college career and figure out how to tell your story in a way that will make employers understand the work you've done outside the classroom.

The Importance of College Internships and On-the-Job Experience

The reality is that students need to practice applying their skills in a professional setting before entering the workforce. Classroom learning is not enough. Some higher education institutions even require students to complete internships before graduating.

A study by the NACE Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition found that "grade point average and the total number of internships a student completed as an undergraduate student are the major predictors of initial career outcomes."

In other words, college students who complete an internship often secure gainful employment after graduation, either as a direct result of the skills they acquired on the job or because the company they interned with decided to hire them.

The reality is that students need to practice applying their skills in a professional setting before entering the workforce. Classroom learning is not enough.

Northwestern Mutual claims to be one of America's top-25 internship providers for the past 23 years. At this company, interns can acquire hands-on experience in the financial sector.

"Our program offers a real-world business environment that provides training and support while working with experienced advisors, providing mentoring and business coaching," said Onna Hill, director of talent strategy at Northwestern Mutual in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

"Students have the opportunity to improve skills, such as time management, communication, discipline, and perseverance, making them marketable to any organization should they not continue with Northwestern Mutual," Hill explained.

As the CEO and founder of CareerQueen and InternQueen, Lauren Berger also recognizes the importance of college internships. Together, her two websites reach more than 9 million people, helping them obtain their dream careers.

"Internships are essential to helping students … land jobs after college [and] are instrumental in helping them understand the types of jobs, industries, and opportunities that they'd be best suited for," said Berger.

"Ideally, the internship provides the student with guidance on what they do and do not want to pursue in the workforce," she said.

Gaining Skills and Experience Through Certificate Programs

From the time we start school, it's ingrained in us that college is the pathway to a career. And though I strongly believe education as a whole is a great way to secure employment down the line, a traditional four-year degree isn't the right trajectory for everyone.

Dr. Mia D. Johnson, vice chancellor of academic affairs at Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College, shared how important certificate programs are for students who need to earn an income right away — possibly even on their way to obtaining an associate or bachelor's degree.

Certificate programs are good options for students who need to earn an income right away — possibly even on their way to obtaining an associate or bachelor’s degree.

"We are ramping up technical and other certificates that get students credentialed to start working, even if another degree is their end goal," she said. "Short-term credentials help them earn [money] faster. We have been intentional about making [certificates] stackable so that students can earn them on the way to a two-year degree."

Essentially, certificate programs can allow students to more quickly and effectively acquire the skills and even the job experience they need to begin working.

Such programs can be useful for students, especially considering that many college students today deviate from the traditional image of the 18- to 22-year-old young adult receiving financial support from their parents. According to Inside Higher Ed, 70% of college students work full or part time.

One example Johnson gave was the welding certificate. Students who earned this credential were not only earning money right out of high school, but were also filling a critical community need.

Additionally, Johnson noted how certificates in patient care can prepare students who want to work in the medical field but not necessarily as a nurse or doctor: "We need people to get patients checked in at a hospital [and] greet them[.] This is important work."

Prospective students who plan to work as they earn their degree or who are eager to start working in a particular field may want to consider earning a certificate. These shorter-duration programs can help you quickly obtain specific skill sets that are required for employment in a given industry.

A young woman in a colorful flannel shirt and an eclectic necklace leans across a conference table as she listens to the woman conducting her job interview.

What Colleges Are Doing to Make Students Employable

Colleges and universities recognize that students want and need more skills so they can secure gainful employment upon graduating.

Ohio's Tiffin University (TU) has made great strides to create a curriculum centered around cultural diversity in order to produce graduates with employable skills.

But how did the school identify which skills were necessary? According to TU's president, Dr. Lillian Schumacher, the university "created a framework that consists of four cluster areas and 13 competencies that are built into [the] Tiffin core curriculum and then reinforced within each TU major field of study."

Schumacher went on to explain, "Some examples of these competencies are diplomacy, objectivity, professional practice, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and ethical behavior. All of these are examples of tangible, real-world, needed skills that employers want."

Brooklyn College, which is part of the City University of New York system, also recognizes that students must learn how to write compelling resumes, improve their interview skills, and utilize their connections to find employment.

A recent New York Times article discussed the college's efforts to actively recruit alumni in order to help current students sharpen their skills, learn more about the field they plan to work in, and prepare to enter the workforce.

“[D]iplomacy, objectivity, professional practice, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and ethical behavior. All of these are examples of tangible, real-world, needed skills that employers want.”

— Dr. Lillian Schumacher, President of Tiffin University

"There are some majors that embed career activities or education in their courses. Choosing a major and career is tightly connected, so as students choose a major, the conversation is certainly going to touch upon careers," said Natalia Guarin-Klein, director of Brooklyn College's Magner Career Center.

"Students who want in-depth and comprehensive guidance can find support by being proactive through attending events [and] getting a mentor," she explained. These are the kinds of experiences that can help students become more employable.

Brooklyn College also believes that campus diversity and learning from peers can make students more attractive to employers.

"Brooklyn College is one of the most diverse college campuses in the country… . Our students learn to navigate difference with respect and understanding," said Brooklyn College's president, Michelle J. Anderson.

"We want our students to develop strong critical thinking skills [and] a deep commitment to inclusion," she said. "The Brooklyn College experience makes our students natural team players, a skill that is essential in today's job market."

Knowing what skills are needed from employers, both locally and globally, is a key part of landing a job after college. But this responsibility doesn't lie solely with colleges and universities; students, too, must learn how they can effectively prepare themselves for the future.

How Students Can Start Preparing for Their Careers

I'm always a little skeptical when students blame institutions on their shortcomings, especially when it comes to finding a job. I myself didn't learn how to interview for a job while I was in college; rather, I prepared by working in high school and researching questions a potential employer might ask me.

Though we should expect colleges and universities to prepare students for their post-college careers to some degree, there are many steps students can and should take on their own.

Tips for Enhancing Your Employability

  • Reach out to career services at your school. These experts can help you figure out what specific skills and experiences employers in your field are looking for.
  • Participate in mock interviews. There's no better way to prepare for an interview than to mimic the real deal. A practice interview can reduce anxiety and increase confidence.
  • Shadow someone who works a job you're interested in. Identify what this individual is doing, what skills are necessary for their position, and what aspects of the job you may not be prepared for just yet and will need to research further.
  • Seek mentorship early on. I received this sage advice when I first started working in education. In my case, I found teachers who could mentor me. Their guidance was essential as I worked toward becoming a teacher and professor. Even now I continue to lean on my mentors for support.