What Employers Want

by Teri Fritsma

One of the challenges faced by many businesses — even in this era of high unemployment — is finding quality workers. Employers say it can be difficult to find the right people with the right skills to meet their workforce needs. So what do employers want?


To gain a clearer understanding of what businesses want in their workers, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) partnered with DEED and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce last spring to conduct a series of listening sessions around the state. The goal was to help MnSCU better align its programs with employer needs — that is, to prepare the right number of graduates for available jobs and to ensure that graduates have the skills and knowledge they need to excel at those jobs.


Known as the Workforce Assessment Initiative, the spring effort involved 44 listening sessions statewide with employers in six industry segments:  health care, manufacturing, engineering, energy, information technology, and transportation. About 1,200 people attended the sessions, including about 45 percent from businesses, 39 percent from education, and 16 percent from community organizations and similar groups. Employers discussed workforce-related questions, and two common themes emerged across all discussions.


Soft Skills are Important

The term “soft skills” means different things to different people. In the listening sessions, employers used it to refer to both complex and teachable skills such as project management, conflict resolution, and problem-solving, as well as more basic attributes such as showing up for work on time, being flexible, and being accountable as an employee. Employers stressed the importance of these non-technical skills, saying workers who don’t have them are not only ill-equipped to carry out important job duties, but are less likely to be hired in the first place. Some employer comments included:

  • “Finding the right technical skills combined with the ability to communicate and collaborate is the biggest challenge.”
  • “Employees need to understand new ways to look at business and need to be innovative.”
  • “Communication is as important as technical skills.”
  • “Even when applicants have good qualifications, they are hired based on personality and soft skills.”
  • “We need diversity and cultural sensitivity training.”
  • “Customer service orientation and basic work expectations such as being on time, professional dress, following rules and procedures, etc., are all lacking.”
  • “As communication via technology has increased, it seems communication ‘in person’ has suffered.”


Hands-On Experience Needed

Employers also frequently expressed the importance of hands-on experience. Experience takes different forms depending on the industry. Some illustrative comments from employers include:

  • “Students should have ‘ride-alongs’ or job shadowing to gain exposure to the job.”
  • “Students need to know what business they are going into. Information technology is often a 24-7 job. Work experience is really important, even fast food experience. Those jobs are tough. People don’t know what a good job is if they never had a bad job.”
  • “Some kind of experience, such as an internship, is critical.”
  • “It is hard for a new graduate to have an appreciation of how workforce efficiency processes, such as lean strategies, are used in the workplace.”
  • “Applicants with work experience of any kind are more highly valued than graduates with no experience.”


Stay tuned later this week to learn how you can learn more about what Minnesota employers want in their workers.


A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Minnesota Economic Trends.


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