This Trend Could Change the Future of Market Research Talent Acquisition

This Trend Could Change the Future of Market Research Talent Acquisition

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal shared exclusive data analysis of standardized critical thinking tests taken by college students.  The results were not encouraging for the pipeline of Market Research talent in the future:

At more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table, The Wall Street Journal found after reviewing the latest results from dozens of public colleges and universities that gave the exam between 2013 and 2016. (See full results.)

At some of the most prestigious flagship universities, test results indicate the average graduate shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years.

Although there are critics of the Wall Street Journal’s methodology, the “Journal” is not alone in this conclusion.  There have been been an alarming number of similar studies, drawing equally discouraging findings.  This is a concerning development for the future of the United States in general, but it is especially alarming for the future of the Market Research industry.

As a profession that relies on critical thinking, data analysis, qualitative research, the ability identify biases, and then distill all of that (often ambiguous) information into an objective, cohesive argument, this news does not encourage optimism in the next generation of Market Researchers.  It could be easy to dismiss the Wall Street Journal’s analysis as yet another slam on the millennial generation — that is, if the problem didn’t seem so systemic.

One Study Doesn’t Indicate a Trend, But This Issue Appears Larger Than One Generation of College Students:

The Wall Street Journal’s study is just one in a long line of analyses critiquing young American’s ability to think critically.  Several studies over the last decade have raised this issue.  For example, a report released by ACT  in 2016 showed that college professors felt that their incoming students were particularly under-developed in the reading comprehension skill of distinguishing fact from opinion.

No more than about half of the college instructors rated the preparation of their entering students in the top half of the scale for any one of the five skills, with only 18% rating students’ preparation at distinguishing among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in the top half of the scale.
An equally alarming study from Stanford University conducted between 2015-2016, found that middle school to college-age students were consistently unable to discern simple biases in their information sources.
We did not design our exercises to shake out a grade or make hairsplitting distinctions between a “good” and a “better” answer.  Rather, we sought to establish a reasonable bar, a level of performance we hoped was within reach of most middle school, high school, and college students. For example, we would hope that middle school students could distinguish an ad from a news story. By high school, we would hope that students reading about gun laws would notice that a chart came from a gun owners’ political action committee. And, in 2016, we would hope college students, who spend hours each day online, would look beyond a .org URL and ask who’s behind a site that presents only one side of a contentious issue. But in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.
Sadly, you can go back to 2011 and find the same concerns being raised in eerily similar language:

An unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that large numbers didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.

Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. . .

. . . Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

 Lastly, even college graduates themselves acknowledge that this as an issue in their lives after graduation.  According to a qualitative study of 1600+ college graduates, those interviewed felt they left their universities without the skills necessary to be life-long learners.

while three-quarters of those surveyed said they believe college had sharpened their skills at finding and evaluating information, only about one-quarter thought their college experience had taught them how to frame their own questions.

 Again, all of this is both disappointing and disconcerting for the future of the country and the future of the Market Research industry.

And Therefore, There is Reason For Concern for the Future of Market Research Talent:

Let’s take a look at what two different, well-established, Market Research organizations look for in their talent.  On the manufacturer-side, Procter & Gamble has one of the largest in-house market research organizations in the world.  According to the P&G job site, applicants for an entry-level internship in Market Research must have a:

proven history from school or work experience of strong leadership through envisioning, direction setting and enrolling others; thinking/problem solving; creativity & innovation; initiative & follow-through; communication; and priority setting.  A statistical qualification is not required, but comfort with data analysis is essential. [bold italics are my own].

These expectations underscore the problem inherent in the findings of the studies above.  On one hand, Market Researchers need to have strong leadership and influencing skills.  On the other, they also need to bring highly develop critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and analysis skills to their role.  This does not sound like the 33% to 45% of college graduates that the studies above describe.

A second example from TNS/Kantar, one of the world’s largest Market Research Suppliers, also prioritizes these same skills.  According to TNS/Kantar careers site,

The Research Manager works with senior colleagues and the client to understand, define, and document the overarching business need, ensure that research is implemented in an appropriate and cost effective manner, and transform data into useful and actionable information.  Primary responsibility is focused on managing projects and clients on a day to day basis with minimal supervision—developing methodologies and survey instruments, establishing and monitoring schedules, project management and analysis of research results. [bold italics are my own].

Once again, the ability to think critically about a situation, identify the data and methods needed to create a solution, and then analyze those resources to form a recommendation are essential.  Compared to these job requirements, the studies by The Wall Street Journal, Stanford University, and others are a terrifying “canary in the coal mine.”

So, if True, What are the Implications What Does This Mean For the Future of Market Research Talent Acquisition?:

The next generation of aspiring Market Researchers (and their Hiring Managers) will likely be faced with one or both of these problems:

  • The acceptable pool of entry-level talent will shrink dramatically AND/OR
  • The standard of excellence in the industry will decline.

Faced with these problems, there are several approaches Hiring Managers can begin adopting now to identify great emerging Market Research talent and maintain the integrity of their company’s Market Research function:

Make Testing Part of the Hiring Process:

I don’t mean academic testing here.  I mean practical demonstration.  Once a candidate has made it far enough down the the interview funnel, give them a case study to solve.  Either ahead of time, or in a timed environment, give them the business question, a set of data and information, and ask them to create a presentation diagnosing the situation and providing recommendations.  If they’ve taken an AP Exam, this should seem very familiar to a DBQ (document-based question).  It gives the hiring manager a taste of their analytical and presentation skills BEFORE they have to go live in a real situation.

Shift the Mentoring Paradigm to one of Apprenticeship:

Mentoring is an invaluable asset to both new and seasoned employees.  However, in Market Research, we need to acknowledge that much of our entry-level job training is done once we are hired.  Few universities offer Market Research degrees, and hands-on training is how many of us learned the in’s and out’s of the job.  Mentoring is a great resource for helping Market Researchers HOW to think about their career and business questions.  Apprenticeship is teaching by doing and through observation.  It is teaching by following and experienced master until one is a master herself.  This can be resource and capacity intensive, but in a future where we have reason to doubt the core skills of even our best entry-level market research talent, taking new-hires “under our wing” until they able to do the job on their own may actually prove a more cost-effective solution.

A Need to Defend the Integrity of the Function:

Market Researchers — especially those in in-house Market Research functions — should begin adopting a “Three Musketeers” mindset.  Like D’Artagnan and his compatriots, we should all cheer “One for all, all for one.”  If talent and quality do indeed slip, it will undermine the credibility of the function.  It will become easier for disinterested and detached managers to see Market Research as “kind of an arm of Marketing” or “pretty much the same thing as Category Management.”  It will be easy for the function to get absorbed into another — costing the function its objectivity and autonomy.  Therefore, future leaders of Market Research organizations will need to step-up their political game as well if future links in the chain start to weaken the total function.


In conclusion, a generation of college students who lack critical thinking skills and the ability to discern fact from opinion is an issue for the future of Market Research talent acquisition.  However, it is not just a Market Research issue.  It is an issue that impacts society in general.  If you are in the field of Market Research talent acquisition or a Market Research hiring manager and have additional advice to give, please include it in the comments below.  Or, if you are so motivated, feel free to contact us regarding the potential of a guest post in our blog.

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