Study finds college graduates lacking professionalism

By Angela Hilsman

A new study from York College of Pennsylvania suggests that today’s college graduates lack professionalism in the workplace compared to their older peers.

York’s newly created Center for Professional Excellence recently commissioned a survey of more than 500 human resources professionals and business leaders to define “professionalism” and see how well college graduates exhibit it.

The study resulted in 37 percent of employers saying that less than half of the graduates they hire exhibit professionalism in their first year. The average employer reports only slightly more than 51 percent of recent hires demonstrate professionalism.

Career Services director for the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Jeffrey Silver, says that those findings are not directly applicable to UMass students. “Very, very rarely do I hear bad things about UMass students, about their work ethic or being professional,” Silver said.

Silver defines professionalism as getting to work on time, dressing properly, not emailing all day long, and just knowing office etiquette. The study concluded that professionalism includes, “courtesy and respect,” “the ability to communicate,” “listening skills,” “being motivated and working on a task until it is complete” and “appearance.”

The study credits this decrease in professionalism to the younger generation having a greater sense of entitlement and different cultural trends.

Silver, 60, says he “tends not to see” a generational difference, adding that UMass students work hard without displaying unsightly tattoos or piercings. He attempts to explain the study’s findings, noting that students who do not care often won’t apply for internships through career services. He said that while Bostonian and New Yorker employers often complain that other college graduates lack commitment or experience, they tend to only have good things to say about UMass.

He adds that out of the thousands of students the program places in internships each year, only one every two to three years will get fired.

“UMass is one of the only universities in the country that allows 18 credits worth of internships,” says Silver. He believes that because students still pay tuition, plus traveling fees, and intern five days a week, they are going to make sure they do a good job and stay committed. Plus, students are held more accountable, according to Silver, because internship coordinators, career services and college deans have access to the student’s performance reviews.   

Silver adds that the bigger the internship, the less likely a student is to get into trouble. “They’re just so grateful to have it and just so in awe to be there,” he says. He wonders if maybe UMass troublemakers just don’t apply for big intern employers.

David Polk, professor of behavioral science at York whose research group conducted the survey, believes that pressing professional habits is important, and that “professors can serve as role models.” He explains that it is inappropriate for professors to wear jeans to class or to allow students to call them by their first names, as it creates an illusion that professors are more friends than professors.

Silver disagrees, saying “if the teacher has to worry about titles to get respect from the student, then they’re not a good professor.” Silver does, however, agree that professors should set an example. “You have to set standards,” or else students are unprepared for the workplace.

Silver believes that professors shouldn’t allow texting or leaving during the middle of class.

“Some faculty will let them get away with it,” he said, “and some don’t.” He recalled Journalism professor Barbara J. Roche. Silver then quoted her saying, “If you are late or texting, there is a door. You’re out of the classroom.”  

“As a professor, most of us see our jobs as conveying knowledge and making sure our students comprehend it, said Polk. “I’m not sure how many would respond that it is also their job to help a student develop good behavior,” he continued, noting that most professors aren’t comfortable setting a moral standard.

York’s Center for Professional Excellence will host seminars with employers discussing their expectations and other workplace issues. Polk says he wants to create a general education course focusing on professionalism.

“It wouldn’t hurt,” Silver said, responding to the idea of starting required professionalism classes at UMass. He adds that the school of business hosts an etiquette dinner each year. There are also “dress-for-success” seminars on campus.

York’s professionalism study concludes that employers value workers who accept “personal responsibility for decisions and actions,” who can “act independently” and who have “a clear sense of direction and purpose.”

The study says unprofessionalism includes, “[inappropriate] attire, tattoos and piercings,” “poor communication skills,” “poor work ethic” and “poor attitude.”

The study also shows that not all employers surveyed believe there has been a decline in professionalism. Fifty-three percent of respondents say the percentage of professional employees has remained the same for the past five years. Only a third of respondents report a nosedive in college graduates’ professionalism.

UMass Career Services provides students with connections to available internships and co-ops. The program provides introductions to internships and co-ops every Monday and Thursday at 3 p.m. in Goodell 508. Appointments can also be set up with Jeff Silver in Goodell on a case-by-case basis.  

Angela Hilsman can be reached at [email protected]