What Matters Most: Your College Major or Mastered Soft Skills?

Degree or Soft SkillsMany of us agonized over choosing our college major. We were told that the major we chose would determine our career path and our earnings potential for the rest of our life.

What we weren’t told was most of us would never work within our chosen field anyway; that our major doesn’t matter. And that employers are not that picky about college majors.

There are certainly some majors that are more in demand than others (e.g., computer science), but the college major is much less important now than it was in the past. A 2010 study showed that barely more than one-quarter of college graduates have a job related to their major.

Meanwhile, there has been a huge shift in employers’ demands and expectations. Far from looking for specific hard skills, many companies are desperate for employees with excellent so-called “soft skills”. Forbes recently analyzed the skill sets for the top jobs of 2013 as determined by Career Builder. The top four in-demand skills are (drum roll, please):

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Complex problem solving
  3. Judgment and decision-making
  4. Active listening

I can hear you saying: “Wait, what? What about computer skills?”

Well, programming, networking, and the like rounded out the top 10, but those skills are considered much easier to teach than the four listed here. For example, MOOCs and coding boot camps that are popping up across the country provide ample learning opportunities for aspiring programmers.

So how do you develop these in-demand skills?

The main way to learn how to think critically is to practice evaluating different solutions to problems. And the main way to learn how to solve complex problems is to get out there and tackle one. Judgment and decision-making come with practice and experience, and active listening is learned by paying attention to and collaborating with others.

You can do any of these things in a formal class, an informal learning environment, at your current job, or even while volunteering in your community. Some specific examples of places where you can greatly expand your marketable soft skills include:

Continuing Education at Your Local Community College or University

Here’s where you’ll  find plenty of opportunities to work on your critical thinking and problem solving skills. No matter what you learn, it will help translate into just about anything you choose to do.

After Your Next Meeting, Reflect About Problems Discussed

Take some time to evaluate the discussion and review your notes. Brainstorm solutions to meet your boss’s or your group’s needs. Try it a few times and write it down; you will be amazed at the results in your professional and personal life.

Volunteering or Sitting on Non-profit Boards

Volunteer organizations can always use human capital to solve problems as they work to achieve their social mission. And you never know who you might meet that can help you explore new career opportunities.

So as you continue on your lifelong educational journey, look for ways to practice critical thinking, problem solving, and so on.

Document these experiences when possible and have these stories ready to tell at your next job interview. They will help you get your foot in the door – and then you can work on filling in any gaps in your hard skills.

 

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For this post, YouTern thanks our friends at Under30CEO!

 

 

David BlakeAbout the Author: David Blake is the Co-founder of Degreed, Author at Moocs.com, and a Stanford d.School EdTech Entrepreneur. In 2009 Fast Company wrote, ““Why can’t we take robotics at Carnegie Mellon, linear algebra at MIT, law at Stanford? And why can’t we put 130 of these together and make it a degree?” Now you can! Take courses from any university and learn from the best resources from across the web with Degreed. Follow David on Twitter!

 

 

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  • Alfred Poor

    I think this article is right on target.
    The Chronicle of Higher Education published a report on employer perceptions (I can dig up the link if anyone is interested), and one key question was about the relative importance of attributes considered when hiring recent grads. “College major” ranked a distant third behind “Internships” and “Employment During College.” (Out of the eight attributes, “College GPA” and “College Reputation” ranked dead last!)

    College students — and not just technology-oriented ones — need to pay a lot more attention to acquiring, practicing, and documenting the soft career skills that employers demand but are not getting in their new hires.
    Alfred Poor
    http://www.alfredpoorspeaker.com

    • YouTern

      You are SO right, Alfred. We’ve featured several posts on this blog in the past with just that message. Throughout our academic career we rank our success on our letter grades. Our letter grades determine if, and which, colleges we will attend. It becomes the gold standard by which we measure ourselves.

      Employers. DO. NOT. CARE. ABOUT. GPA. Period. That ends when with your college acceptance letter. College students need to understand and absorb this. Focus on developing your soft skills and get relevant experience through internships.

      (Obviously some specialized industries… medical, engineering, law… etc. academic performance is important… but for 95% of degrees… no.)

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