The question "What's your major?" has gone from being a cheesy pickup line to something much more imperative these days as employers require broader skills from college graduates.
Whether you major in anthropology or chemical engineering, companies are looking for a skill set that may go beyond your school's core curriculum. The ability to speak in public, to write a succinct, grammatical business email, to do certain math operations beyond addition and subtraction could mean the difference between being one of the growing number of unemployed grads or one setting off on a long and fulfilling career.
Unemployment for people ages 20 to 24 was at 13.5 percent in June; for 25- to 34-year-olds, 7.6 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Of those grads who are employed, 48 percent are working in jobs that require less than a four-year college education, according to a January study from The Center for College Affordability & Productivity. Plus, more than three-quarters of those underemployed grads are in occupations that require no more than a high school diploma.
According to BLS data, 284,000 Americans with a bachelor's degree or higher worked for minimum wage in 2012. That is down from 327,000 in 2010, but up a staggering 70 percent from 2002. That's a lot of well-educated baristas and waiters.
For years, employers and recruiters have said recent grads don't have the skills to fill many open entry-level jobs. Of the 704 employers surveyed in 2012 for a special report from The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's "Marketplace," 42 percent said it was "difficult" to find qualified recent graduates, and 11 percent classified it as "very difficult."
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"There is absolutely no doubt there is a talent gap when you think about who's graduating from college today and what many corporations need," said Chad Oakley, president and chief operating officer of executive search firm Charles Aris Inc. "So many of our clients have significant talent shortages at lower levels of the business."
Adding to the problem is the growing number of families that have less faith in the value of a four-year liberal arts education: Just 50 percent of Americans believe a college education is a good financial investment, according to a survey of 3,000 people by Country Financial released in July. That's down from 57 percent last year, and 81 percent in 2008.
"More and more people are asking about the return on investment in regards to particular majors, particular schools, particular programs," said Eric Greenberg, founder and director of education consulting firm Greenberg Educational Group. "They want to know, 'Where will this put me in four years?'"
It's a valid question. What is the right course of action?
Because students by definition have less work experience, experts say the right mix of courses taken and skills learned during their time on campus can improve the odds of filling that talent gap and landing a decent job.
That's what 2013 DePauw University graduate Chase G. Hall, a journalism major, credits for helping him land one of five management fellowships at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
"On my résumé, I look like a starving artist who only wants to do journalism," said Hall. But his course work showed a broader range of interests and experiences, including science, ethics and social change courses as part of his participation in the university's honor program.
Course work that makes applicants stand out from others with the same major, or speaks to skills that are relevant to the job but unrelated to their major, should be listed in the skills portion of a résumé, said Oakley. "If I had taken say, five finance classes where I had done well, I would list out the class and the grade," he said.
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Other skills are better touted on a cover letter, or during the interview, said Russ Hovendick, president of recruiting and placement firm Client Staffing Solutions. Hovendick, author of "How to Interview: What Employers Want to Hear in Today's Competitive Job Market," said that's the chance to go beyond buzzwords like leadership, and offer credible proof and concrete examples.
And if there's not a right fit course at the college, or room in your schedule? Consider taking an online or summer course at another school. Not only does that show initiative, but it also serves to differentiate a candidate from the competition pool at his or her college, said Greenberg.
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Here are six kinds of courses recruiters recommend adding to your college schedule:
An acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM experience is something employers like to see even if the job isn't in those fields. It's one of the talent gaps, particularly for liberal arts majors, said Oakley. Such classes typically teach students to logically approach advanced problems—a valuable skill in any job. "Those classes will serve that person well for the rest of their career," he said.
In particular, a Big Data analytics course is a smart pick. "There is not an industry in the world for which major decisions cannot be made using data," Oakley said. One course won't make students experts, but it can at least provide a greater understanding of the various business uses for data.
After a summer interning at New York-based marketing firm Peppercomm, Western Kentucky University student Nick Gilyard plans to take a course in design this year. His aim: Get more experience working with infographics before he graduates next year. "It's something I hadn't heard about in school, but now that I've worked in the industry I know it'll be helpful," he said.
It's smart to use internships to seek out talent gaps, said management consultant Bob Nelson, author of "1,501 Ways to Reward Employees." The work experience itself can go a long way to getting a student hired, particularly when it offers students a goal they can work toward with useful courses.
"The best education is one where you have the image in mind of what you want to do, and you're not shopping around," Nelson said.
Business and economics
"Certain specific econ classes could be relevant," no matter what your interests, said Greenberg. A deeper understanding of how businesses work can help a job candidate excel as an employee—or build a successful business, if they end up working for themselves. As an added bonus, they may gain some insight into better managing their personal finances.
"It may sound strange, but improv would be great," said Hovendick. "Any course that would help magnify communication skills" is an asset. Most students don't have the public speaking skills or poise that employers look for, to excel in client meetings and represent the company well, he said. (Of course, that awkwardness can also lead would-be workers to bomb the interview.)
More serious alternatives might be a persuasive argument class, introductory law or ethics course or a stint on the debate team. "Classes like that require you to form an opinion, to write about it, and defend it," said Oakley—all things that can sharpen critical thinking and presentation skills.
Years of hiring in his role as a business developer in the pharmaceutical industry gave David M. Goldman of Flemington, N.J., insight into what makes a good candidate. So he made sure his three daughters—who majored in fields as varied as chemistry, communications and public policy—had experience in either public speaking or theater before they graduated. All three are now gainfully employed in those fields.
"They're used to speaking in public, and a lot of the nervousness you see in other candidates isn't a problem," he said. "It gives them poise and presence on their feet." Goldman expects his son, who is studying engineering with a theater minor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, to have similar success.
"We have heard and seen from countless clients that young people today just don't have good business writing skills," Oakley said. Taking a class that veers from term papers to teach clear, concise writing for a business audience can help. Another useful option: a grammar course.
"If you're someone who's focused on harder kinds of sciences or math, courses and activities that give social skills, that encourage teamwork and that help build creativity and develop creativity are really valuable," said John Challenger, CEO of outplacement consulting firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. But students of any major can benefit. Employers like to see evidence that candidates can work well with others and can demonstrate leadership ability, he said.
—By CNBC.com's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter