5 Things Employers Wish Millennials Learned in College | Lindsey Pollak's Blog

5 Things Employers Wish Millennials Learned in College

MillennialsDoes college prepare today’s young people for the real world of employment? According to a 2013 Chegg study, the answer is a definitive no. Fewer than two in five hiring managers said that recent grads are prepared for a job in their field of study.

Based on my work with entry-level employers across a wide range of industries, I would agree with this finding. There’s a lot of frustration with today’s college graduates’ preparedness compared those 10 or even five years ago.

What Has Changed?

I believe this lack of preparedness stems from a few different issues:

First, today’s grads are members of the Millennial generation, which means many of their parents were actively involved in their lives from childhood through to college. They were often celebrated for “participation” and rarely experienced failure or struggle at home. Even at school, there was often more of an emphasis on building self-esteem and creativity than on developing discipline and hard skills.

Second, colleges and universities have changed over the years to serve the desires of both Baby Boomer parents and Millennial kids. According to U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by the Chicago Tribune in 2008, there has been an 85 percent rise in the number of double and triple majors over the last decade. And in 2010 The Wall Street Journal  reported on College Board data that show more than 900 four-year colleges and universities allow students to design their own majors. These are not inherently bad trends, but they often allow, for example, a student who doesn’t like writing to avoid writing classes altogether.

Third, the world is changing so fast that it’s unclear whether any higher education program can realistically keep up with the skillsets required in today’s graduates. In many ways, it’s up to students to seek out skill- and experience-building opportunities outside the classroom through internships, extra curriculars and part-time jobs.

5 Skills Millennials Must Master

So, what exactly do employers wish more grads knew? According to the Chegg study, hiring managers felt that grads were most lacking in organization, leadership, personal finance skills and “street smarts.” Let’s explore these four skills, and one more I consider crucial:

1. Communication

This is the topic I absolutely must add to any list of what employers wish Millennials learned in college. According to a 2013 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 80 percent of employers said colleges should focus more on written and oral communication. No matter what the industry or job function you’re in, you will need to talk to people and send emails.

Mostly due to the rise in email, texting, instant messaging and other electronic communications, today’s grads are much more casual, unfocused and imprecise in their writing and speaking. This doesn’t mean they’re dumb or lazy; it usually means they haven’t been taught how to communicate in a professional way.

While it irritates many employers to have to offer basic writing classes to new hires, this is a simple and painless solution to the problem of Millennials’ weak writing and speaking skills. (On the positive side, employers rarely have to offer Millennials classes on basic technology and software programs.) I also recommend Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty.

2. Organization

When it comes to organization skills, employers want Millennials to be able to manage their time so they get all their work done on a daily and weekly basis. This includes managing and prioritizing multiple assignments, and organizing and analyzing large amounts of data — such as client preferences, sales results or vendor bids — in a cohesive way.

If you are — or know — a Millennial struggling with this, one of my favorite books on the topic is Getting Things Done by David Allen.

3. Leadership

I believe this topic is crucial and so under-taught for Millennials that I wrote a new book entirely about it. At its core, being a leader is about raising your hand and taking responsibility. Saying, “This needs to get done and I’ll make sure we do it.”

You don’t need to be in a management role to be a leader, nor do you necessarily need to take a class on the topic. But employers absolutely want young employees who raise their hands to take on challenging projects, go above and beyond expectations and immediately step forward and admit if they’ve made a mistake. In other words, employers want Millennials who are mature adults.

4. Personal Finance

This one may feel like a bit of a curve ball, but it’s true. While I don’t agree with this practice, some employers check prospective employees’ credit scores before making a job offer. The reason is some employers believe personal finances are a way to gauge how responsible people are.

Whether this is fair or not, many college grads do tell me they wish they had learned more about personal finance in college. It can be daunting to face a salary negotiation, employee benefits choice, stock option plan or apartment lease agreement without such skills. My favorite books on the subject include Generation Earn by Kimberly Palmer, On My Own Two Feet by Manisha Thakor and Sharon Kedar, and I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi.

5. “Street Smarts”

Voltaire once said, “common sense is not so common,” and I see this maxim played out every day in the workplace. While employers believe it’s rude to wear ear buds in the office, Millennials are using them to focus and be more productive. While employers are horrified when a Millennial sends an email of ideas directly to the CEO, that same Millennial grew up in a world in which everyone on the planet — including the president of the United States — is accessible through social media. Common sense is most definitely not common, especially in today’s multigenerational workplace.

What employers really want is for Millennials to learn the professional etiquette of their particular environment. If you’re reading this as a Millennial, I would encourage you to observe the way people communicate, what they wear, how often they check their phones in a meeting, etc.

If you are reading this as an employer, I suggest  you make the “unspoken” rules of your workplace more accessible. For example, host professional etiquette training sessions or provide Millennials with mentors who can give them insider knowledge and answer their questions about “they way things are done around here.” It would be impossible for college to teach the ins and outs of every organization.

What other skills would you add to this list? Please share in the comments!

Employers, if you’re trying to better understand the Millennials who work for you and are applying to your organization, read my new white paper:

Millennials white paper

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  1. martin kral says:

    Hello: Excellent Article! The points presented are all the more reason why we as universities should have a mandatory career preparation and development course in every curriculum (and mandatory internships). By doing this, the students will be more (and better) prepared to leave the campus (mindset, lifestyle, etc.) behind them and become entry-level professionals.

    • @Martin – Thank you for sharing the university perspective. I appreciate the comment!
      – Lindsey

  2. Nicole Roberts says:

    I am a senior in college and while I agree that it is critical for students of my generation to take career development, leadership, and personal finance courses in order to be better prepared for the work place and for the “real world”, I believe that older generation employers should also be more accepting of Gen Y’s work habits and not be as nit-picky. For instance, is wearing ear buds at work really something to be frowned upon if actual work is being completed? Just because people do things differently doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

    • @Nicole – great point. We are all in the workplace together, so it’s up to everyone to adapt to the multigenerational workplace. Thanks for the comment! -Lindsey

  3. Pat W says:

    Mandatory internship is a nice idea, but let’s get real. There are not currently enough internships to go around, many companies have cut them out. And for many, the summer is when they are earning that book/supply money for the next semester and they are not paying for cars/insurance. If you choose your classes well and take initiative, you can get more leadership/project management experience that you do in most intern positions. My daughter came out after leading multiple projects and running a prom dress drive in conjunction with another student’s non-profit for teaching at-risk teenagers life skills. These experiences have gotten more than a dozen interviews in about six weeks.

    • @Pat – Thank you for the comment. I agree that the kinds of skills employers are looking for can be gained in a variety of ways, but it is up to each student to take that initiative. It sounds like your daughter has done that very well. Congrats! – Lindsey

  4. Marlene Gillen says:

    Very good article. I especially like the definition of leadership and how anyone – not just those in “leadership positions” – can demonstrate this valuable skill. I’d add Interpersonal skills to the list – this includes displaying common courtesy, making eye contact in conversations, paying attention in meetings, and the ability to understand another person’s point of view and motivation. Many in the millennial generation are so self-focused that they are missing this critical skill.

    • @Marlene – I absolutely agree that demonstrating leadership skills does not require an official leadership position. Thank you for sharing your perspective. – Lindsey

  5. Blake Tiggemann says:


    Great article! I am starting a financial planning company for millenials and am hoping to help college students, so I hope they will heed your advice!

    Keep up the good work!

    Blake Willis Tiggemann

    • @Blake – Thanks for the comment and good luck with your new business. It is much needed! -Lindsey

  6. Nate says:

    Wearing earbuds in your own private office shouldn’t be a problem, but wearing them in public in front of other people (like if you sit at a desk with multiple people around) suggests you’re trying to cutout everyone else around you. It has the appearance of being anti-social, non team player.

    While the “leave me alone to do my own work” thing may work for some roles, generally it can make or break a team, employment, a company, etc.

    As an employer, I would have a problem with this mentality of “who cares what I do as long as I get my work done”, because a house divided cannot stand, and if we’re not all pulling together not just in work, but culture and personality it can hurt a company, I need team players that can pivot on a moment’s notice when needed.

    It’s not about the ear buds, but the attitude it clearly presents about that person.

    If someone wan’t s job, they cannot force a company to change their corporate culture, but they must adapt to the culture of that company, otherwise they should consider starting their own company with its own culture or becoming an independent contractor.

  7. Career Camel (@CareerCamel) says:

    Really fantastic piece – and very true. With high competition for graduate jobs at the moment, young people are not only expected to have a degree. They’re expected to have transferable skills and the “full package” to make them more appealing to employers. Thanks for the tips!

  8. anuja says:

    very good article article mam…..i am reading your blog for the first time……i am a 2nd year student,doing engineering…and i totally agree with you that my generation people have a very high tough competition but the problem that you discussed in your article is about the oral and written communication…it is very important…in written 1 we all are using short words nowadays,in chatting with everyone,it maybe on social sites or any other place…even i use it….and in my view it is the one of the biggest reason of spoiling our written communication……because it is now in our habit to use only short words…..which will be going a reason or cause for our own failure….in our future career…..

  9. Mike True says:

    Excellent article, Lindsey! You are on the mark. Students and employers should utilize my book, InternQube: Professional Skills for the Workplace, and its companion website – InternQube.com. They flesh out some of your thinking here.

  10. Chris Morton says:

    Employers wish millenials would speak…more…slowly and enunciate! This is especially important if any telephone interaction is a part of the job, which it invariably is.

    • @Chris – Thanks for the comment. I hear that a lot, too, and always try to remind other generations that Millennials really don’t have that much experience talking on the phone. Some have successfully provided training on basic phone skills. – Lindsey

  11. Karol Taylor says:

    I am teaching a workshop this month based on Alexandra Levitt’s concept that They Don’t Teach Corporate in College. I now plan to incorporate some of these ideas into it. Giving full credit to you, Lindsey! Great ideas.

    • @Karol – That is fantastic, thank you for letting me know. Alexandra is a good friend and I love her work, too! – Lindsey

  12. Jonathan says:

    I wear headphones in a busy office so that I can drown out the noise. As an adult with ADHD it is almost impossible for me to concentrate with so much going on. It is much easier for me to block out the noise of music than the chatter in an office.

    It is either I don’t get work done because I am too distracted or I go home every day with a migraine because I am trying too hard to concentrate on my work with everything going on around me.

    Even though I wear headphones to drown out the noise, I am ready and more than willing, to switch directions on a dime or do whatever my co-workers or boss needs me to do. I try and make this known to all my managers and co-workers, if you need me let me know, I am just trying to concentrate over here.

    Working in the tech industry, thankfully, it is generally acceptable to wear headphone while working. It has saved myself many headaches by being able to do so.