Two Perspectives on AAC&U's Employer Research
AAC&U's newest employer research, “Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work,” found that business executives and hiring managers overwhelmingly endorse broad learning and cross-cutting skills—including those gained from internships and other applied learning experiences—as the best preparation for long-term career success. The report summarizes selected findings from two parallel national surveys—one of 501 business executives at private sector and nonprofit organizations and another of 500 hiring managers whose current job responsibilities include recruiting, interviewing, and/or hiring new employees. Below, a former CEO of Lockheed Martin and a former STEM learning scientist with NASA (now with AAC&U) share their perspectives on the importance of this research.
What Employers Want: Former Lockheed Martin CEO Details Attributes Graduates Need to Succeed
By Norman R. Augustine, Former Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin
Internships Lead to Jobs: A STEM Perspective on AAC&U’s Employer Survey
By Lisa Wills, Senior Director, Undergraduate STEM Education, Office of Undergraduate STEM Education, AAC&U
By Norman R. Augustine, Former Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin. He recently served on the Committee on Integrating Higher Education in the Arts, Humanities, Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
What does an employer value when considering a new college graduate for prospective employment?
No one, of course, can answer for employers writ large, but in my experience serving on boards ranging from several startups to four Fortune 100 companies and being the leader of a firm with 180,000 employees, I have observed that there is a rather consistent set of answers to the question.
First of all, the sine qua non is integrity. This is not simply an altruistic assertion; it is a highly practical one. Not only do customers and fellow workers dislike associating with individuals with a serious character flaw, small groups or even individuals suffering from a distorted ethical compass can damage or even destroy highly regarded firms—Enron, Arthur Andersen, Volkswagen, Barings Bank, and more.
But to go beyond this fundamental attribute, one must stipulate what the employee will be expected to contribute. Here, it is convenient to divide the workforce into two highly oversimplified and sometimes overlapping, but nonetheless useful, categories: individuals expected to spend their career in a highly specialized discipline—say thermodynamics, contracting, or accounting—or individuals expected to take on broader responsibilities, including various levels of management. Certainly, it is beneficial for those in Category I (specialists) to share in the attributes sought from Category II (generalists), and it is highly desirable that members of Category II be reasonably grounded in at least one discipline. However, the attributes described in the following paragraphs tend to be most relevant when making employment decisions for Category II.
Clearly, employers seek employees who are competent in their chosen fields. But motivation is the most essential quality other than character. I have often written (and observed) that motivation will almost always beat mere talent. A combination of the two is, of course, nearly unbeatable. Good grades tend to be a fairly reliable proxy for both motivation and ability.
Individuals who are creative, innovative, constructive change agents, and who have broad perspectives, are highly valued. This includes individuals with exposure to such subjects as history, public policy, geography, and trends in technology. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch described such persons as being able to see around corners. This, of course, is a priceless attribute: to be able to foresee the future—at least to some degree.
Increasingly, in both Categories I and II, there is demand for what is commonly termed “team players.” The day of the soloist in corporate America is vanishing. Successful firms tend to seek selfless individuals who put their own interests behind the interests of the group, focusing on mission, not self. In my experience, it is this group of individuals that tends, over the longer term, to rise in an organization—not those who are so focused on getting ahead that they neglect their current responsibilities.
An advanced degree is certainly an asset in today’s job market. It distinguishes one as “going the extra mile.” Further, today’s pace of change, particularly in the technical fields, makes it almost impossible to gain one’s needed job tools in just four years of college.
Whether through an advanced degree or not, it is of the utmost importance that a prospective employee displays a curiosity to pursue continued lifetime learning. The alternative is to become professionally middle-aged by the time one is 35. (I hold what is perhaps a heretical view about whose responsibility it is to ensure lifetime learning. I believe that any responsible employer should provide an environment wherein continued education is accessible to its employees, but in the end, I believe it is the employee’s responsibility to ensure that his or her skills do not become obsolescent—or worse.)
Then there is that greatest intangible of all: judgment. Can one learn good judgment in school? Perhaps the best way is by studying judgments, both good and bad, that have been made by others in such areas as politics, philosophy, engineering, literature, government, and ethics . . . and by making bad decisions of one’s own in extracurricular pursuits that pertain to nonexistential matters.
The greatest weakness that I have observed in today’s college graduates is an inability to communicate in meaningful terms, especially in written form. This is most frequently the realm, but by no means the exclusive realm, of the technically trained. Too many engineers (I am an engineer) can speak only two languages: Fortran and C++.
Somewhat ironically, I have found that when weighing an individual’s qualities as part of hiring or promotion decisions, it often is not the person’s strongest characteristic that carries the day. Rather, it is the individual’s weakest characteristic that is decisive. Much as in tennis doubles, the team with the stronger weaker player usually prevails.
Finally, there is that criterion that has been informally stated by a global bank on whose advisory board I served: “No jerks.” (They used a slightly different expression!) No one—customers, bosses, or fellow employees—wants to be around a jerk.
It will be noted that much of the above has to do with leadership qualities. Perhaps the best definition of leadership that I have found is inscribed on a tombstone in the British Officers Cemetery in Normandy. It reads, “Leadership is judgment, courage, and carelessness of self.” I would presumptuously modify this to read, “Leadership is judgment, courage, character, and carelessness of self.”
No job candidate is perfect; nor is any employer. But the above checklist, based on my experiences, provides at least a starting point for the new college graduate—as well as for the prospective employer.
By Lisa Wills, Senior Director, Undergraduate STEM Education, Office of Undergraduate STEM Education, AAC&U. She previously worked with NASA as acting manager for strategic performance assessment, evaluation, and data collection.
Anecdotal evidence of best practices only goes so far towards influencing policy at any level—national, local, or institutional. On the best days, when the stars align, the research literature will support our anecdotal observations. Until recently, however, voices from the workforce—which in some sense make my work in STEM education worthwhile—have been absent from the conversations. That is, until my AAC&U colleagues published an important report, “Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work,” and I experienced what Oprah Winfrey calls an “Aha!” moment accompanied by a huge sigh of relief.
According to the survey report, conducted by Hart Research Associates and published by AAC&U, “Business executives and hiring managers indicate that participation in applied and project-based learning experiences—particularly internships or apprenticeships—gives recent college graduates an edge.” More than 90 percent of the employers surveyed say that they would be more likely to hire a recent graduate who has held an internship or apprenticeship with a company or organization. This is huge for STEM graduates.
In a former life, I served the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Office of Education for almost five years, culminating in my role as acting manager for strategic performance assessment, evaluation, and data collection. As a former STEM faculty member with graduate training in the learning sciences, I was intimately familiar with the role of what we call “authentic STEM experience” in developing and producing STEM graduates. My work at NASA, however, was based on what NASA Education has always known about the value of internships and apprenticeships as authentic STEM experiences and the positive ways in which internships and apprenticeships affect student attainment of STEM degrees. NASA Education was deeply invested in this perspective.
As the lead for performance assessment and evaluation for NASA Internships, Scholarships, and Fellowships, I sought to establish a research base for what NASA Education anecdotally already knew: that authentic learning experiences such as apprenticeships and internships constitute a key component of an effective STEM education that translates into more students matriculating with STEM degrees and entering the national and global workforces.
But what we didn’t know was this: How were students received by hiring officials when they graduated with a STEM degree after participating in a NASA internship? How did they fare against students who did not have an internship or apprenticeship experience prior to entering the workforce?
While the education researcher in me would certainly appreciate deeper analyses of the survey data in AAC&U’s employer research report, the educator in me will settle for the personal validation of how I’ve spent my life as a STEM student, STEM faculty member, and education researcher/learning scientist with a focus on STEM education. I recall with clarity the bone-deep exhaustion at the end of my undergraduate degree program in microbiology. Stretching beyond my known capabilities in three internships (one with the US Department of Transportation and two with the National Institutes of Health) during my undergraduate program certainly eased my way into graduate school and added a dimension to my credentials no coursework would ever replicate. Every potential graduate advisor I engaged while scouting graduate programs validated my experience that internships and apprentices do indeed help students develop attributes, attitudes, and behaviors that cannot be learned in a classroom or course laboratory. These attributes help graduates transition more effectively into their new careers in the workforce as compared to students who did not have an internship or apprenticeship as part of their undergraduate training.
For STEM degree students, the research literature explores psychosocial factors hypothesized to be related to success in STEM disciplines such as academic self-concept; academic self-regulation; mathematics identity; and grit. Further, I would suggest that internships and apprenticeships present a real-world context in which students can hone these kinds of attributes, attitudes, and behaviors that enable them to outcompete STEM graduates who did not have these same opportunities. What workforce employer wouldn’t prefer to hire a STEM graduate who can self-regulate through rounds of disappointment associated with multiple iterations of trial and error to reach a solution and then tap a personal well of grit to see the solution successfully implemented? Or see a student become secure enough in her or his mathematics identity to provide a mathematics-based explanation for a seemingly untenable situation?
From my personal perspective, the findings from AAC&U’s report close the loop on why, as an education community, we should continue to advocate for internships and apprenticeships wherever we can create them, and not just for STEM students. Federal and state governments should continue to invest in programs that provide students with internship and apprenticeship opportunities. Supporting colleges and universities in partnerships with the private sector can enhance the kind of internships and apprenticeships available to students.
I have always freely shared my personal success from my college internship experiences whenever I have the opportunity to engage students, even those at the primary or secondary level. (It’s never too early to enculturate a child into pursuing higher education, especially in the STEM disciplines.) Now, when students I speak with say that completing a STEM degree already seems difficult enough, I can honestly say that going the extra mile with an internship or apprenticeship will give them an advantage when joining the workforce.
Hart Research Associates, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2018), 16, https://www.aacu.org/research/2018-future-of-work/.
An authentic STEM experience is an experience inside or outside of school designed to engage learners directly or indirectly with practitioners through developmentally appropriate practices from the STEM disciplines that promote real-world understanding.
 Herbert W. Marsh et al., “Academic Self-Concept, Interest, Grades, and Standardized Test Scores: Reciprocal Effects Models of Causal Ordering,” Child Development 76, no. 2 (March/April 2005): 397–416.
 David S. Yeager et al., “Boring but Important: A Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Fosters Academic Self-Regulation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 107, no. 4 (October 2014): 559–580.
 Nathan Napoleon Alexander, “Statistical Models of Identity and Self-Efficacy in Mathematics on a National Sample of Black Adolescents from HSLS:09” (doctoral thesis, Columbia University, 2015), https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D8WS8S9M; Jennifer D. Cribbs et al., “Establishing an explanatory model for mathematics identity,” Child Development 86, no. 4 (July/August 2015): 1048–62.
 Angela Duckworth et al., “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92, no. 6 (July 2007): 1087–1101.