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The surprising reason college grads can’t get a job

Nearly everyone agrees that recent college graduates are having an inordinately tough time finding work almost five years after the end of the Great Recession. Young people aged 18 to 34 have struggled with double-digit unemployment and account for half of the 10.9 million unemployed Americans, according to government figures.

Now a new study shows there is widespread disagreement between business leaders and young adults and their families over the root causes of this problem, beyond the obvious problem of a sluggish recovery.

Nearly three-quarters of hiring managers complain that millennials — even those with college degrees — aren't prepared for the job market and lack an adequate "work ethic," according to a survey from Bentley University, a private business school in Waltham, Mass.

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Those hiring managers aren't alone in their assessment, either. A wide range of businesspeople, corporate recruiters, academics and others interviewed for the study agree that recent college graduates deserve a grade of "C" or lower for their preparedness for their first job.

"The recession did substantial damage to the U.S. labor market, including for young college graduates, and we still have a ways to go before things are back to where they should be," said Gloria Larson, president of Bentley University. "At the same time, employers in the U.S. have been expressing concerns about a skills gap."

Nearly two thirds of those surveyed consider this lack of preparedness a "real problem," while 62 percent of business decision makers and recruiters say that unpreparedness harms the day-to-day productivity of their businesses.

(Read more: From brats to bosses—Gen Y to dominate by 2025)

Employer's attitudes about hiring millennials often transcend concerns about training and technical skills. Many are put off by the fact that entry-level candidates are clueless about how to navigate an office setting, according to an analysis by Time.

For instance, a survey by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community College found that more than 60 percent of employers said applicants lack "communication and interpersonal skills" — an increase of about 10 percentage points in just two years. Many managers also said that today's applicants can't think critically and creatively, solve problems or write well.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed more than 200 employers about their top 10 priorities in new hires. Overwhelmingly, they wanted candidates who are team players, problem solvers and who can plan, organize and prioritize their work. Technical and computer-related know-how placed much further down the list.

(Read more: All is not lost for the millennial generation)

Time noted that jobs are going unfilled as a result, which hurts companies and employees. Companies say candidates are lacking in motivation, interpersonal skills, appearance, punctuality and flexibility.

Not surprisingly, more than half the millennials surveyed disagreed with this assessment and insist they have the proper work ethic — even if they describe it differently. For instance, 9 percent of college students define preparedness as "work ethic," compared to 23 percent of business leaders and 18 percent of recruiters who measure work ethic by preparedness.

What's more, young adults, higher education officials and other contend that employers provide conflicting information about the skills they value most in young employees.

While roughly two thirds of business leaders and recruiters say that "hard" technical skills and "soft" skills are equally important, a majority say they'd prefer to hire a recent graduate with industry-specific skills than a liberal arts graduate who needs to be trained first.

Further adding to the confusion, when asked to assess the importance of a comprehensive set of individual skills, business leaders put "soft" skills at the top of their list, ahead of traits like integrity, professionalism and a positive attitude.

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"Employers are sending some mixed messages," Larson said in an interview. "While they highly value the 'soft skills' that they believe are vital to long-term career success, they'd prefer to hire candidates with the industry-specific skills that help them hit the ground running, even if those candidates have less potential for future growth."

Ultimately, "we need to move beyond this false choice between hard and soft skills." Larson said that businesses and colleges can partner to help ensure that students gain the real-world experience and hard skills that employers require.

"That doesn't prevent us from also delivering the broad education that will set college graduates up for success in all facets of life, including their careers," she said.

The Bentley survey was conducted by KRC Research from Oct. 17 to Oct. 25 and involved 3,149 online interviews with business leaders, recruiters, higher education professionals, parents of students, junior and senior high school students, four-year college students, recent college graduates, and the general population.

(Read more: Retirement funds and ramen noodles: Saving smarter in your 20s)

Economists and other experts offer many reasons why millennials have had a hard time finding suitable work these last few years. But many agree that inadequate preparation for the job market is definitely one of them.

"There is more demand for skill and education, and young people have less skill and experience than the typical worker," Rory O'Sullivan, the policy and research director of the Young Invincibles, an advocacy group, said recently. "We don't do a very good job of training them out of school to be prepped and ready to go."

A November 2012 study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation noted that in a weak job market, "the young adult workforce is usually the last to be hired and first to be fired. In down markets, when jobs are harder to find, many millennials make the choice to stay in school, lowering the participation rate."

"The recent trend of companies to outsource some traditional entry-level jobs may also be shifting the types of jobs offered, affecting employment rates for younger, less experienced candidates," the study said. "There is [also] more competition from more experienced workers for those companies that are hiring. More than half of baby boomers nearing retirement have delayed doing so, making it harder to find space for new workers."

—By The Fiscal Times

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