Ark: I studied engineering but am still jobless

College campus.

College campus. (Credit: iStock)

When I graduated from Penn State a year ago, I thought I was perfectly prepared to succeed in the business world. I'd worked hard, graduated at the top of my class in computer science and managed to acquire lots of experience with the sorts of industry software that I was sure hiring managers were looking for. I'd even chosen a STEM degree, which - according to just about everyone - is the smartest choice to plan for the future (8 out of the 10 fastest-growing job occupations in the U.S. are STEM jobs).

I felt like the job market was mine for the taking. I was very, very wrong.

Despite diligent studying, the only real-world business skills I'd learned at college were how to write a résumé and operate three-fifths of the Microsoft Office suite. My college education left me totally unprepared to enter the real workforce. My degree was supposed to make me qualified as a programmer, but by the time I left school, all of the software and programming languages I'd learned had been obsolete for years.


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To find real work, I had to teach myself new technologies and skills outside of class, and it wasn't easy.

My experience is far from unique. Despite rising tuition rates, graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to land jobs (53 percent of college grads under 25 are unemployed or underemployed). More and more graduates are finding that their conceptually based college educations leave them ill-equipped to handle "real-world" jobs - so much so that, according to some experts, most companies no longer care what their recruits majored in, since they know they'll have to extensively train them regardless. This is even more poignant in the tech sector - in fact, 47 percent of the technology jobs in New York City no longer require any college education at all. Across the country, only half of high-tech workers have graduated college.

Businesses aren't looking for college grads, they're looking for employees who can actually do things - like build iPhone apps, manage ad campaigns and write convincing marketing copy. I wish I'd been taught how to do those things in school, but my college had something different in mind.

At least 90 percent of my college education (and that of so many others) boiled down to pure terminology, or analysis of terminology. My success in any given class was almost wholly based on how well I could remember the definitions of countless terms - like the precise meaning of "computer science" or how to explain "project management" in paragraph form, or the all-too-subtle differences between marketing and advertising.

Our future marketers don't need to know the differences between advertising and marketing, they need to know how to sell things. Our future programmers don't need to be able to define computer science, they need to know how to program computers.

Those are the skills that are most important, and they're precisely the things that aren't being taught - in large part because schools don't hire professors who know how to teach them.

There are plenty of requirements for the average professorship, but job experience generally isn't high up on the list - in fact, a 2006 study of college professors in STEM fields showed that a whopping 59.8 percent hadn't had any job experience in their industry. That means that a large portion of the professors tasked with teaching college grads how to become marketers, managers and salespeople have never marketed anything, managed anyone or sold anything at all. Our professors teach what they know, and after years spent steeping in theory, it's no wonder that they put such an emphasis on conceptual learning.

To me, this is the root of our college problem: The average college student is paying $30,000 a year for the chance to learn valuable skills from professors who haven't had the opportunity to learn those skills themselves. Maybe it's a crazy idea, but if you're going to spend all that money for a college education, shouldn't you expect to learn real-world skills from people who know what they're doing? In our current framework, that idea sounds like fantasy - but what if we tried something different? What if we came up with a new way of hiring teachers, and a new outlook on how to develop college courses? In an ideal world, business students would learn how to succeed in business by actually running their own businesses - Cedarville University (based in Cedarville, Ohio) is allowing them to do just that. Each fall, the school issues a challenge to their junior class: come up with a viable idea for a business and make it a reality.

Unlike most college business simulations, Cedarville's program has students develop business ideas on their own, acquire real funding from local banks and use real money and manpower to run the business over the course of the semester. Every business major gets involved - marketers run legitimate ad campaigns, accountants keep track of income and student managers are elected to oversee the project. The result: a concrete learning experience that allows students to try their hand at their field of study, and actually apply some of the concepts they've learned.

Programs like Cedarville's (along with existing college internship programs) are smart ways to impart real-world knowledge while in school. If colleges spent more time on this sort of practicum, and less time on rote terminology, we might see more well-rounded graduates.

Solving the issue of inexperienced teachers may be even simpler: have schools relax academic requirements for professors and focus far more on hiring effective businesspeople. With a little more leeway, academically-minded candidates will have more freedom to gain job experience, and schools may even attract more talent directly from the business world. Success in business and success in the classroom are certainly different things, but I'd wager that it's a lot easier to show an accomplished businessperson how to teach than it is to show a teacher how to be an accomplished businessperson.

Admittedly, these are simple ideas and represent only a small portion of the problem, but they're a start. With better teachers and more hands-on material, I like to think that our graduates would be better equipped to succeed in the workforce, and that earning a bachelor's degree might someday hold the same status that it used to. But what would I know? I'm just a college grad.

Casey Ark is a columnist for The Patriot News and is the owner of Plato Web Design, a custom web development firm based in Harrisburg, Pa.

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