The student versus employer mismatch – are we on the same page?

Students are leaving university with core marketing skills, ready to gain hands-on experience, but employers expect their graduate hires to be converting from day dot. Where’s the balance? Is traditional marketing education suitably equipped? Nina Christian takes a look.

Nina Christian 150 BWA few months ago, I attended the 2019 Youth Marketing Conference. A panel of bright young university students sat on stage discussing their spending habits and priorities in life: eating out, travel, festivals and desire (or sometimes lack thereof) for cars, houses and future planning. The purpose of the discussion was to give aspiring brands an insiders’ look into the sentiments of this spend-happy demographic.

But then came this question from the panel facilitator: “What do you worry about the most? What keeps you up at night?”

They replied, “Finding a job after uni – I’m worried I won’t find relevant, full-time work,” “The possibility that my degree won’t actually mean anything in the future” and then this one, “I’m worried that I spent a lot of time at uni and won’t be able to get a job I want, or worse still, that I get a job that I don’t like, and then feel like it’s all been a waste of time.”

Sadly, this is an all-too-common scenario that I encounter on a daily basis as I work with young marketers around the country. Yet the paradox is that a huge percentage of marketing hiring managers and marketing directors – 41% in fact – find it “very hard to find quality talent”. 

There is currently the largest skill gap in marketing compared to any other industry. And it is hurting way too many marketers, with 90% of them feeling under-skilled in marketing, according to Grovo.

I spoke to Trisca Scott-Branagan, head of marketing, institutional at ANZ, she felt that the mismatch was fuelled by the fact that tertiary education operates in a duel-demand system. 

“There’s demand by students coming into university for certain courses; and there’s demand by employers hiring graduating students,” says Scott-Branagan. “It’s challenging for these two demand systems to operate in sync. As the marketing profession has moved from analogue to digital, few universities have pivoted to provide hands-on digital marketing experience.”

This makes me think it’s as much about students making choices around ‘traditional’ marketing education, without being given an accurate view of the current state of the marketplace and realistic expectations of ‘what happens next’ after they graduate and how they’ll need a plan to enhance this knowledge – as much as it is about employers hoping that institutions will anticipate where the market is going years in advance and deliver training that has young marketers delivering business results from the get go. And somehow, the educators are caught in the middle, feeling the pressure from all corners. 

It’s also clear this mismatch isn’t just an Australian phenomenon.

The Digital Marketing Institute tested 908 marketing professionals across a variety of industries in the US, UK and Ireland. The research highlighted the fact that there is an unavoidable and growing skills gap that affects organisations’ abilities to successfully leverage digital.

While in-house marketing divisions and ad agencies are still grappling with the challenges of building a team that possesses the combination of traditional and digital skills needed to thrive in today’s media landscape, way too many marketers are still focusing on the wrong things, and yet frustrated with why it’s not working.

A number of factors at play in this mismatch

First, universities are struggling to keep up with the pace of evolution in the marketing arena, especially in terms of technology. While teaching timeless marketing principles is important, most marketers graduate without the understanding (and associated skills) of how to apply these principles to the technologies that are becoming fundamental to the execution of the discipline. 

Second, universities with a focus on foundational marketing disciplines – critical analysis, creative thinking, problem solving – focus on textbooks and don’t spend time in lectures or even examine skills such as: resilience, drive, value-driven conversations, accountability and ensuring any dollar or hour spent in marketing delivers on a business’ strategic objectives and brings ROI! In many cases, students don’t discover this until after they graduate by which time they are left to fend for themselves. 

Third, how marketers will be employed is changing. Current trends by Forbes indicate that the majority of workers will be freelancers within just a few years. The fear of becoming irrelevant lurks not only among emerging graduates but also amongst the C-suite at the highest level. Nobody wants to be Kodak, Nokia or Blockbuster.

In many cases, marketers are the biggest variable to how progressive, innovative and visible a brand is in the marketplace. In fact, nowadays, a premium is placed on marketers who can achieve results, rather than grades, and this also impacts the way they are being hired along with the pressure to demonstrate business impact from the outset.

While many ‘progressive’ institutions are beginning to focus on upskilling in martech stacks – useful in filling a need in the marketing ecosystem now – ideally this is part of a far more holistic conversation. The larger conversation must address why these tools are important, where they fit in the marketing landscape and which shiny new toys will emerge in the future that support the business’ strategy.

The way forward

A better way is to work toward bringing young marketers, industry and educators onto the same page around what’s needed of the modern marketer. Because shared expectations will drive improvement and therefore progress overall, and result in far less frustration and mismatch by those emerging out of the marketing education system into the real world.

Either way, critical thinking, creativity and strategy are among the top skills that the World Economic Forum identified as the fastest growing in-demand skills globally towards 2022 – and these are what great marketers excel in. 

So whatever way you look at it, the future for marketers is exceptionally bright. They just need to know that, and realise that it’s not ‘them’, it’s the fact that things are and will continue to change faster than anyone can imagine – and by recognising that nobody has it ‘altogether’ and they have got what it takes, and they get to be part of that change and what it will look like for emerging marketers into the future.

Nina Christian is founder and lead marketer at Braveda

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Image credit:🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič – @specialdaddy