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As graduation season winds down, throngs of college graduates are entering the workforce. Many may not be ready.

Employers rate “ability to work in teams” as the most important skill required of college graduates; 62 percent of employers said this skill is “very important,” while another 31 percent rated it as “somewhat important,” according to a recent employer survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

And that’s where the problem lies. While employers overwhelmingly feel that collaboration matters, only 48 percent perceive recent graduates as “very well prepared” in this regard.

While employers overwhelmingly feel that collaboration matters, only 48 percent perceive recent graduates as “very well prepared” in this regard.

In many cases, college students agree with this assessment, according to a recent survey of 500 students currently enrolled in 4-year institutions in the U.S. by College Pulse, an online survey and analytics company.

Students’ responses to the questions about their teamwork experiences and attitudes are striking.

When asked how much training, if any, their college had “provided for ways to make team-based class projects more effective, enjoyable, or productive,” 65 percent of respondents said “None.”

Another 22 percent answered: “A few minutes.”

In other words, 87 percent of the students sampled said they had received no real preparation in the skill most valued by employers.

This preparation gap is complicated by an enthusiasm gap. Nearly half (49 percent) of the students characterized their feelings about team-based class projects as either “somewhat negative” or “very negative”; 22 percent felt “somewhat positive” about such work and only 2 percent felt “very positive.”

Women were more likely than men to feel negatively about group work.

Echoing what many work-from-home employees have experienced over the past year, students saw remote collaboration as especially challenging.

When College Pulse asked a separate sample of students what their biggest challenges have been during the pandemic, 40 percent responded  “coordinating group projects and keeping group members accountable.”

The challenges are surely amplified for those 35 percent of students who have been assigned three or more team-based class projects during the current academic year.

Although students generally dislike and rarely receive any formal training about how to do group work well, they know that their future employers value the ability to work in teams. They estimate that 71 percent of employers consider this skill “very important” — in line with the actual ratings by employers in the AAC&U report.

This data suggests that college graduates are woefully underprepared to exercise a skill highly sought after by employers.

So, what can professors, colleges and prospective employers do to better prepare tomorrow’s workforce to engage effectively, and enthusiastically, in team-based work?

First, professors can and should provide instruction on how to collaborate well. This instruction would ideally take place alongside group work, so that students can immediately practice the principles taught. These should include basics like defining shared objectives and setting expectations around communication (e.g., channels, contact information, frequency, responsiveness) and where shared documents will be housed.

The principles should also include defining roles and responsibilities, and the importance of knowing and tracking who will do what by when.

Second, colleges can provide opportunities to students to learn how to collaborate well. These could be offered within the footprint of a required core curriculum, through career centers or as standalone courses, such as the Psychology of Collaboration class I taught while on the faculty at Harvey Mudd College.

One challenge, of course, is that faculty and staff members may not have themselves received formal professional development on how to collaborate well, which can make it difficult to see and communicate what works and why.

While there are many great collaborators in academia, most of the requisite learning occurs through happenstance and trial and error. Plenty of academics avoid deep collaboration altogether, choosing instead to go it alone.

Nevertheless, some students leave college prepared to work effectively in teams.

Graduates who enjoy team-based projects, if even just a little, should highlight that fondness in cover letters and ensure their resumes include a prominent line that demonstrates experience and aptitude in this domain.

They should also mention any collaboration training received, whether at their college, online or elsewhere.

Employers who value the ability to work in teams will be well-served by ensuring that their onboarding provides new employees with both a clear understanding of what effective group work looks like within their context and low-stakes opportunities to practice that preferred mode of being and doing.

New and established employees alike will benefit from professional development opportunities to hone these critical skills. Whether we call it group work, teamwork or collaboration, employers value employees’ ability to work together to advance shared needs and a common mission.

Collaboration is hard work and difficult to do well. Employers don’t value collaboration because it is simple or fun. They value collaboration because it offers a pathway to do together that which cannot be achieved alone.

Debra Mashek, founder of Myco Consulting LLC, and former professor of Psychology at Harvey Mudd College, applies her expertise as a social psychologist and experience as an administrator in college and nonprofit settings to advance complex collaborative initiatives in higher education.

This story about preparing students to work in teams was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

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  1. In educational settings including higher education, group work is often used by educators to avoid the guilt that some feel when made to acknowledge differences in preparation, motivation, and especially ability among students. A single grade for all participants based on the outcome of a project allows faculty to ignore differences among group members, forces highly motivated students to do a large share of the work, and leads to cynicism on the part of students towards group work generally. Training of faculty needs to recognize and deal with this issue.

  2. Unfortunately, this is not a skill that can be taught successfully in the university or afterwards. Collaboration and teamwork is taught before we are 18.

    Teamwork/Collaboration are skills taught childhood and honed during the Tween/Teenage years. They are taught in team sports where personal goal stetting (improving ones skills to START and remain competitive) and groups efforts (winning) makes things happen. On teams, all is done at the practices. Games are a bonus to see how the hard work and preparation pays off. The guidance and support of a coach is necessary in order to improve the foundation that parenting lays out.

    Collaboration, and other important community skills, are also originally learned in group care during the first 2,000 days of life when the brain is the most receptive to collaboration and navigating social interactions. It’s the time when we learn how to share (items and adult attention). Classrooms are created by teachers who are trained in college to do this.

    The problem with today’s workforce is getting worse, not better. It’s about Self-Efficacy (belief in oneself based on a foundation of trial and error). That can’t happen with the over-parenting , and the SOCCER MOM Generation. The problem with these future adults is that their important POWER skills and learning, have been hi-jacked. Modern day parenting and educational meddling has removed the child from the equation of childhood. The whole journey is more about adults (and their own self-worth), than the kids.

    Grown Up Sociopaths have made childhood about corrections and overcompensation, instead of shaping adults of the future. It’s no wonder the world is full of repressed children in adult bodies!

    Kids no longer learn important skills such as:
    Problem Solving
    Critical Thinking
    Flexibility
    Respect
    Perspective Taking
    Delayed Gratification
    Empathy
    Compassion
    ETC. (REAL life skills)

    And in sports now…Coaches are afraid to critique young athletes abilities for FEAR of parental wrath.

    And in school now…Teachers are afraid to give out true representation of a student’s skills/efforts (A.K.A. grades) for FEAR of the WhatsApp shaming by a bunch of over involved parents who now have chats to maintain 24/7 control over their kids’s lives.

    It’s no wonder young adults have no idea how to collaborate!

    Sadly/Luckily, parents have big enough pocketbooks and houses in order to keep financing the lifestyles of these helpless adults.

    But managing them in the workforce is exhausting! It’s more stressful than watching cats in water.

    It feels hopeless as employers (WE are now called MENTORS which is inappropriately implying that REAL life is still a school).

    Leaders are drowning because the expectations set for us are impossible. It’s impossible to teach collaboration to an entire generation of people who think that teamwork is about dividing tasks in order to do less. In a mindset where instant Gratification means that, “Find your passion!” WILL change from one day to the NEXT (when it feels too challenging and uncomfortable).

    These young adults have also been raised to be severely manipulative, in order to get what they want from workmates and employers (see anything written about Verbal Abuse).

    Collaboration is not the biggest problem that we have. It’s one of many and it leads to a short-fuse in younger and unrealistic workers. It also leads to sever health issues in those Leaders trying to manage the unmanageable. And worst yet, it results in customer suffering when we have to explain why some adults find it acceptable to:
    Quit in Groups
    Leave Without Warning
    The Great Resignation
    Change Careers Mid-Contract
    (regardless of whether they are teachers in schools leaving a contract mid-year, lawyers leaving a client mid-case to take a new job in NYC, techies immediately leaving a “Best Place to Work” and non-digital native customers stuck without a rep/help center support in the digital age, etc.)

    As an employer (in international education where many “run to”-ahem “run from), I have learned:
    1. Have a thick-skin because immature adults “throw the blame” at you when they need a scapegoat and they are off running away from a life-challenge, AGAIN
    2. Never forget my abilities of startup and 12 years of bootstrapping Entrepreneurship-I can do anything/everything that the company requires (i.e. clean toilets, develop new programs, teach in a classroom, pay the bills, do SEM/SEO and digital marketing, council FEARful parents)
    3. Believe in ACTIONS. Only TRUST what people DO (never what they say)

    Universal Early Learning (0-3 if we want it to make an immediate impact) is a start to bettering our workforce of the future. How we fix what we currently have? I’m not going to lie…it’s much more difficult. It will take SELF-LEADERSHIP and self-control on the part of ever worked out there. It will also take BRAVERY to calm (SHUT UP) meddling and bully PARENTS in the schools of today.

    “Be THE change” is our phrase of hope!

    Best,

    Jill

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