Unlesson: You’ll need this later.

School world: Advance your skills and use them

For many people, the secret to a good high school and college education is selecting the classes that are The Most Useful. For much of today’s student body and its parents, that means picking a major that teaches skills, not philosophies, that produces articles, not essays, that trains you to work in concrete, not concerts.

Calls of “You can’t get a job doing that!” echo throughout parental advice sessions, as students contemplate literature, history, philosophy, religion, Greek, Latin, or French. No permutation of “but those are the classics!” will convince a worried parent (or student) staring down the barrel of mounting college debt that majoring in English is more expedient than engineering.

As a result, it’s a lot easier to bring home a nice, buttoned-up skills-based major to meet the parents than any leather-jacket-wearing, slick-haired, motor-cycle-riding rebel like Philosophy with a Cause. “I love to write,” my students tell me. “But my parents wanted me to major in something useful, so I’m in journalism, not English.”


“I love theater,” they say. “But my parents want to be sure I get a job when I graduate, so I’m studying event planning, not plays.”

“Architecture, not art.”

“PR, not political science.”

“Computer science, not comparative lit.”

You probably aren’t surprised to learn that the percent of graduates who hold traditional humanities degrees like English, history, or philosophy is indeed dropping (although other “useless” humanities degrees like art and music are on the rise).  But even though skills courses may be winning Most Likely to Succeed every year, the jump from classroom to workroom may not be quite as simple as it seems.

I’m not saying parents are wrong, but I am saying there may be some missing links in this logic. For example, it may seem obvious that knowledge of software is a lot more appealing to employers than critical analyses of Much Ado about Nothing. And there is no doubt employers are clamoring for college graduates with more demonstrable skills.

But what is less obvious is that it might not be your skills that land you a job. What’s more, aside from the fact that the software you learned so diligently in sophomore year is most certainly outdated by the time you graduate, what you think of as “skills” and what employers think of as “skills” might not be quite as similar as you (and your parents) assumed.

Work world: Get hired because you’ll be good at learning/love the work

A recent study found that the top three things employers are looking for in freshly-minted college grads are not about software, equations, or business plans. Instead, HR professionals of 2014 reported that hiring is all about personality. They’re looking for a positive attitude (84%), communication skills (83%) and an ability to work as a team (74%).

No, I’m not suggesting that want ads are going to start advertising for history majors. But I am suggesting that especially because the technologies of work are changing so quickly, whether it’s in social media marketing positions or digital rendering for landscaping projects, few employers expect new workers to walk in with the exact skills they’ll need every day.

As a result, employers say the most important things on your resume are more nebulous and confusing qualities, like “cultural fit” (43%), along with “relevant courses” (21%) and “internship experience” (13%). What that means is that the major listed on your resume is really most useful for expressing your interests and what you know how to learn, not precisely what you have learned. In other words, employers are usually looking for someone who will be interested and quick in learning the specific software, devices, styles, or techniques that company uses every day. Even if you have the best training, you’ll still have to learn to do it their way, not the way you learned in courses.

Extend out that logic, and it makes sense that an English major who took classes in science writing and had an internship in a medical center writing reports is going to be a better candidate than a medical services major who worked retail for four years.

Don’t take this idea too far, though. If you want to be a computer programmer, it really makes the most sense to major in some kind of computer programming. But the truth is, if you’re a philosophy major with demonstrable programming skills, you probably have a good shot at that job, too. Believe it or not, employers are just as worried about not finding the right person to hire as you are about finding someone to hire you.

At the end of the day, what employers want more than anything else is someone who can identify problems and solve them. Figure out how to let them know you can do that, in their business, really well, and you’ll be miles ahead of the game.


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