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Companies Want Tech Skills — and the Ability to Write in Complete Sentences

The job market for new college graduates has finally seemed to shake off its recession-era doldrums, with one estimate putting inflation-adjusted salaries at 14 percent higher than pre-recession levels. While the growing demand for scarce STEM skills is one driver of this increase, HR experts say another, less-visible factor is the number of young adults who enter the workforce unable to handle a 40-hour workweek or send a grammatically correct email.

"It's hard for them to adjust to the working world," said Paula Harvey, vice president of human resources and safety at manufacturing company Schulte Building Systems and a member of the Society of Human Resource Management's talent acquisition special expertise panel.

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New data from LinkedIn finds that top-paying jobs for new graduates are in finance — specifically, investment banking and equity research — along with hardware and software engineering and data science, with even more traditional industries like manufacturing competing with Silicon Valley for the most highly skilled workers.

"Demand for manufacturing skills at all levels is strong currently," a LinkedIn spokesperson said via email.

"The graduates coming out with the STEM degrees are well positioned to have higher starting wages than those who are not," said Mel Hennigan, vice president of people at Simplicity Corporation, a software platform that helps colleges close the "employability gap" with students, and who is also a member of the Society of Human Resource Management's talent acquisition special expertise panel.

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But although Harvey says her team does a lot of hiring for engineering and other high-tech positions that have become critical to keeping American manufacturers competitive in a global economy, one of the toughest hurdles isn't a mathematical or programming skills gap; it's finding people who can communicate professionally and be responsible for their own work.

"That's usually one of the bigger problems. They're lacking in good business etiquette communication skills [and] they're used to working in groups so sometimes getting them to work independently can also be another thing. Working on their own is more challenging to them," she said.

"Our data also tells us that soft skills like communication, organization, teamwork and critical thinking are sought after across the board," LinkedIn's spokesperson said.

"Employers are often looking for intangible aspects in candidates [like] willingness and the ability to work hard," Hennigan said. With skills like active listening and critical thinking in short supply among today's young adults, companies are forced to compete harder and pay more for those who do have them.

In a new study, HR consulting firm Korn Ferry analyzed salaries at more than 700 employers around the country, a total of some 145,000 entry-level positions. Year-over-year, average starting salaries rose by 3 percent to $49,785 — an all-time high.

Although today's new job-seekers have a high degree of familiarity with and knowledge about technology, this can come at the expense of more analog social skills, Hennigan said.

"One-on-one, human-to-human communication is very important… they're not as adept," she said.

Part of the problem is that these new workers think they're doing just fine, thank you.

"One thing that definitely seems to be true about millennials is that actually criticism sometimes isn't that well received," said Benjamin Frost, global product manager for pay in the Hay Group division of Korn Ferry. They also lack the problem-solving skills of previous generations, and need to be told what to do rather than figuring it out on their own.

"Lots of new-grad employers are finding they have to teach those kinds of skills on the job and create a lot of graduate training," Frost said.

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Some HR pros blame over-indulgent parents; other say the problem is that young adults just entering the workforce come from an academic system that focuses on test scores and easily quantifiable achievements, not the type of interpersonal and communication skills an earlier generation would have picked up from an after-school job making espresso or mowing lawns — jobs that were monopolized by out-of-work adults during the Great Recession when these young adults were in their teens.

"It's an area of huge mismatch. A huge majority of graduates, when you ask them what they think is most important, say hard skills," Frost said. "Employers say something very different, which is that what actually makes the difference is all of the soft skills," he said. "Employers are saying, 'Not only is that the most important thing, but we really struggle to find people who have that,'" he said.

This shortage of soft skills goes beyond just high-tech and STEM jobs. LinkedIn found that nearly 60 percent of companies are having trouble finding people with the soft skills they need.

"That's across all functions and all disciplines," Frost said. "That's the big overlooked thing that employers are really struggling with."