You don’t need a degree in petroleum engineering to get a good job. Even political science will do.
What a majority of employers are looking for is not so much a specific major but rather a set of skills that are sorely lacking in the job market. That is the conclusion of a research paper by three City University of New York (CUNY) professors in the fields of finance, business management and statistics.
Professors Hershey Friedman, Linda Weiser Friedman and William Hampton-Sosa argue that the fact that certain majors are associated with higher starting salaries may reflect not so much those majors’ intrinsic worth as the belief that those disciplines inculcate certain desired skills.
In a global Internet age where “disciplines are converging and the job you have today may be totally different five years later,” the three CUNY professors say aspiring college students would do well “to focus on skills, not majors.”
Indeed, the evidence has accumulated that college may prove a poor investment for a large segment of students. The CUNY professors acknowledge this with data about “1 million retail clerks, 115,000 janitors, and 15% of taxi drivers” with college degrees
For that reason, they say the acquisition of 10 “essential, fundamental skills, abilities and values” is of more enduring value than the mere mastery of “the knowledge base of a particular narrow discipline,” a notion they colorfully illustrate thusly:
“Keep in mind that dinosaurs did not become extinct because they were weak; they disappeared because they could not adapt to a changing environment.”
So young Americans: Ask not what to major in, ask whether you can offer these 10 qualities to your future employer:
A survey of 225 employers Friedman, Friedman and Hampton-Sosa cite puts communication skills at the very top of the list (98%) of traits they are seeking in job candidates.
“Communications skills today include being able to use social media as well as various technologies (email, Twitter, PowerPoint, etc.) to get your message across,” they write.
Because the defining feature of business is the disruptive chaos of the global Internet age, “businesses that are going to survive have to be nimble and creative,” the CUNY professors write.
For that reason, employers are seeking students with entrepreneurial qualities. The authors cite a provocative study suggesting that “students with double majors are stronger in the ability to think integratively and creatively than those with single majors.”
The constant and rapid pace of technology-induced change necessitate employees who are adaptable, a quality that employers find is lacking among college graduates.
The CUNY professors cite one study saying that “employers want the knowledge and skills that will be crucial not only to a student’s first job, but also to his or her second, third and fourth jobs.” Schools, too, must change, they say, or the marketplace will shunt them aside as well.
Critical Thinking / Problem Solving
Again, it is the present age’s rapid pace of change that prioritizes critical think and problem solving above the fragmented knowledge of one particular college major.
The authors cite the government’s efforts to press the adoption of a “Common Core” curriculum that promotes creative problem solving, but lament that just 26% of New York City students could pass that curriculum’s English exam and 30% its math test.
Ability to Collaborate and Cooperate
Loners and bigots need not apply, the authors write, saying that hardly any kind of work can be accomplished without input from others. Indeed, they cite evidence that diverse workplaces are the most creative.
Moreover, 92% of employers prioritize “teamwork skills,” they say.
Ability to Retrieve, Evaluate and Present Information
Without the acquisition of useful, cutting-edge information, employees cannot make good decisions. This is a premium skill in the age of big data, which is all about finding “hidden patterns and useful correlations” that marketers can, for example, exploit to target micro-niches of customers with tailored messages.
The CUNY professors add that “it is not only about acquiring information; it is also knowing how to present data using charts, tables, spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations or whichever format works best.”
“If most jobs are constantly and rapidly changing thanks to technology, the only employee who has the ability to adapt will be one who is not afraid to learn new things,” write Friedman, Friedman and Hampton-Sosa. One of the professors interviewed “Creating Innovators” author Tony Wagner, who added:
“Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously” — a disposition that will be vital in a world where traditional careers are disappearing.
Applied Knowledge in Real-World Settings
The CUNY authors offer two bits of practical advice for students seeking to impress employers with their own practical knowledge. First, get an internship, which will enable them to demonstrate they can apply their knowledge in a real-world setting.
Second, because the ability to work with others from different cultures is vital in today’s global work force, consider the benefits of a semester abroad. Best of all, they recommend combining the two by getting an internship abroad.
Cognitive skills are necessary but insufficient for professional success, the authors write. They cite research affirming the need for values including “integrity, persistence and resilience” as well.
And the CUNY professors say the mandatory ethics courses MBA programs require presented little barrier to the moral failures of those responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. Rather, the predominant “greed is good” mentality they have observed over the past several decades involves executives who care only about themselves and who therefore fail to build companies with staying power.
In contrast, they cite research indicating “a strong positive correlation between being a value-driven firm and financial performance.” Companies who get this prioritize people, safety and customer service (in that order) ahead of profits, they say. It’s all about “assiduously helping others,” they add.
Positive Attitude and Empathy
A survey the authors cite suggests 97% of employers deem a positive attitude crucial to success. Indeed, the CUNY professors cite research in work-force science that finds personal warmth effects tenure and employee performance.
And unsurprisingly, happy workers are “more loyal, productive and innovative than those at other companies where the labor force is unhappy,” they write.
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