The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

Connecting Employer Demands with Student Perceptions

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Written by: Michael Barrowclough and Michelle Kibler, Assistant Professors of Agribusiness in the Department of Agriculture at Illinois State University (

We as researchers are challenged with facilitating learning of our discipline to students while preparing them to enter the workforce. The two are not mutually exclusive. We are interested in the demands employers place on new hires (often college graduates) within the agricultural industry and how students’ perceptions of those demands correlate. While gaining knowledge in a particular field of study is of high importance, what can be overlooked is the significance of the development of soft skills such as time management, dependability, and communication to name a few. Knowing the soft skills sought by employers is only half the battle as proficiency in those skills must often be learned through practice and repetition. At times, educators have struggled to bridge the gap between academia and industry (Neuman and Banghart, 2001; Thacker, 2002; Wright, 2002; Cox and King, 2006).

To help us bridge this gap, we developed a survey aimed at determining the skill(s) most preferred by employers, as well as the skill(s) employers find most lacking in new hires in the agricultural industry. The survey was distributed to professionals in the agricultural industry attending the 2017 Agricultural Career Fair at Illinois State University. A total of 71 surveys were completed, with 50 of the 52 companies attending the career fair participating. Survey questions focused on the respondent’s opinion regarding the importance of six skills in new hires:

  1. Applying knowledge/skills to the work environment,
  2. Being innovative/creative,
  3. Computer applications/Staying current on technology,
  4. Locating, analyzing, and evaluating information to solve complex problems,
  5. Oral/Written Communication, and
  6. Working with others in teams

These six skills were chosen following an extensive literature review in conjunction with results of previous research conducted by the authors (Barnett, 1997; Fallows and Steven, 2000; Lowden et al., 2011; Finch et al., 2013; Kibler and Barrowclough, 2016).

The survey used a choice-based method known as “Best-Worst Scaling” (Finn and Louviere, 1992; Louviere and Islam, 2008; Louviere et al., 2015). Participants were shown 10 different scenarios, with each scenario containing a list of three of the above mentioned skills. In each scenario, participants were asked to select which skill (of the three listed) they felt was “most important” and which skill (of the three listed) they felt was “least important”. This choice-based method has significant advantages over other survey formats (e.g., ratings scales) in that it allows for an individual’s strength of preference for multiple objects to be calculated over a defined measurement range (Louviere et al. 2013).

The skill employers found to be most important was Oral/Written Communication, followed by Applying knowledge/skills to the work environment, Working with others in teams, and Locating, analyzing, and evaluating information to solve complex problems. Being innovative/creative and Computer applications/Staying current on technology were found to be least important to employers attending the career fair.

With these results, instructors may choose to tailor existing course activities (assignments, group projects, presentations, etc.) or create new opportunities to enhance student abilities in these areas. By linking the skills that employers find “most important” to how developed employers find those skills in their new hires, we as educators may provide a classroom experience which better prepares Illinois State University agriculture students for employment in the highly competitive agricultural industry.

Using the information gained from the employer questionnaire, we plan to administer a similar questionnaire to undergraduate students in the Department of Agriculture, focusing on the following objectives:

(1) examine agricultural students’ perceptions concerning skills, knowledge, and abilities they believe employers find important in recent college graduates;

(2) elicit student reflections and comments on course activities that provided experience or practice regarding specific skills and abilities throughout the semester

We anticipate that by surveying both groups (employers and students) we may identify any potential gaps that exist between student perceptions and employer demands. Students may benefit by having a clearer understanding of the skills and abilities valued by employers. Through reflections on what course activities relate to or provide experience with various employer sought skills, students may be encouraged to consider the benefits these activities provide in addition to gaining subject knowledge.

Blog References:

Cox, S. and D. King (2006), ‘Skill Sets: An Approach to Embed Employability in Course Design’, Education and Training, 48(4): 262-274.

Finch, D., L. Hamilton, R. Baldwin, and M. Zehner (2013), ‘An Exploratory Study of Factors Affecting Undergraduate Employability’, Education and Training, 55(7): 681-704.

Finn, A. and J. Louviere, 1992, “Determining the appropriate response to evidence of public concern: The case of food safety”, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 11(1): 259-267.

Kibler, M. and M. Barrowclough (2016), ‘Career Fair Questionnaire’, Submitted to industry participants at the 2016 Agricultural Career Fair at Illinois State University.

Louviere, J., T. Flynn, and A. Marley, 2015, “Best-worst scaling: Theory, methods and applications”, Cambridge University Press.

Louviere, J. and T. Islam, 2008, “A comparison of importance weights and willingness-to-pay measures derived from choice-based conjoint, constant sum scales and best-worst scaling”, Journal of Business Research, 61(9): 903-911.

Louviere, J., I. Lings, T. islam, S. Gudergan, and T. Flynn, 2013, “An introduction to the application of (case 1) best-worst scaling in marketing research”, International Journal of Research in Marketing, 30(3): 292-303.

Neumann, B. and S. Banghart (2001), ‘Industry-University ‘Consulternships’: An Implementation Guide’, International Journal of Educational Management, 15(1): 7-11.

Thacker, R. (2002), ‘Revising the HR Curriculum: An Academic/Practitioner Partnership’, Education and Training, 44(1): 31-39.

Wright, J., L. Cushman, and A. Nicholson (2002), ‘Reconciling Industry and Academia: Perspectives on the Apparel Curriculum’, Education and Training, 44(3): 122-128.


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