According to Robert W. Goldfarb, columnist for the New York Times, companies should give opportunities to more college graduates who come to them without the needed technical skills. He writes:
…employers should consider accepting some responsibility for introducing young people into the work force. This could be the perfect time for companies to start pilot projects that enroll unskilled but promising people in corporate training programs.
Goldfarb is implying that companies know how to train employees and, therefore, they are equipped to turn liberal arts graduates into high-demand workers. He suggests that corporate training programs can effectively develop skill sets such as “…six-sigma analysis, supply-chain procedures, customer service, inventory control, quality assurance and Internet marketing.” While I appreciate the intent of Goldfarb’s message, I’m afraid that he is attributing much more capability to corporations than is warranted.
The reality is that employee training in most companies is not very effective. The best estimates are that only 15% to 20% of learners apply newly acquired knowledge and skills in the workplace. It’s not that instruction is poor; it’s that organizations put up barriers to learning and application of learning. Employee development is not encouraged, not supported, and not expected either from old or new hires. Professional trainers that are good at delivering instruction are not successful ensuring application of that learning.
These organizations think of training and development of employees as something that happens in events (workshops, seminars, online courses, etc.) when, in fact, most learning occurs in other ways. Hallely Azulay uses the 70-20-10 rule: 70% of employee learning happens on-the-job; 20% happens from interaction with colleagues and friends; and only 10% is from formal training programs. If companies want to develop liberal arts grads into productive technical workers, they must be intentional about the learning that occurs the other 90% of the time and ensure that learning is applied in the workplace.
With work changing so fast, the most important thing for employees to learn is how to learn. In the face of a steady stream of new knowledge and skills, employees can't rely on what they already know. They need to know how to constantly acquire new knowledge and skills. Liberal arts graduates tend to have this ability more so than graduates with technical degrees. If companies want to take advantage of this talent, they will need to learn how to do a better job of developing these employees.
So, while I agree with Goldfarb that liberal arts degree graduates have something to contribute to most organizations, I don’t think we can rely on companies to prepare them for the jobs that need to be filled.