Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Employers seek grads with 'soft skills' more than specific majors

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Assumption College senior Courtney Woods, left, talks about post-graduation employment as Nikki DiOrio, director of the school's Career Development and Internship Center, listens at the college in Worcester. (T&G Staff/PAUL KAPTEYN)

Faced with a competitive job market, college students might want to choose majors in hot career fields such as business administration or exercise science.

But a recent survey of employers suggests that anthropology, philosophy and other liberal arts studies may be just as good or better for students' long-term career success.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities released a report last month, "Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success," which found nearly all employers, 91 percent of those surveyed, agreed that for career success, "a candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major."

When hiring recent graduates, employers most highly valued skills and knowledge that cut across majors, including written and oral communication, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings.

The survey results ring true to Central Massachusetts-area employers and liberal arts institutions, which are working to help students apply broad fields of knowledge to problem-solving and skill-building in career settings.

"What sometimes is characterized as soft skills is often mentioned as most important to employers," Timothy P. Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce said.

"You do need to be solid and expert and competent ...," he continued, "Equally important is the ability to communicate written and orally."

The chamber launched a Higher Education-Business Partnership to help employers develop a workforce pipeline among the region's 12 higher education institutions and to give college and graduate students exposure to "real-world situations and expectations employers have."

The initiative, which includes career fairs, internship resources, participation in the Worcester Student Government Association and a program to help entrepreneurs grow and expand, also is intended to "move that needle by letting students know there are world-class companies here and great futures in front of them," Mr. Murray said.

Assumption College student Courtney M. Woods, a senior from Tewksbury who is majoring in accounting, said that her broad course work, which included classes like theology, art and politics, psychology and English, added value to her accounting program.

But what really sparked her marketability, she said, was her leadership and teamwork skills developed through student government (she is senior class president), Campus Activities Board, internships, tutoring and community service.

Ms. Woods received two job offers in her field last fall and accepted a position with DiCicco, Gulman & Co., a public accounting firm in Woburn.

She will go through a monthlong training program and work under senior staff for on-the-job guidance after she starts.

"I think with being so involved on campus, that helped me with the interview process," Ms. Woods said. "Most of my interview, we barely talked about accounting. We mainly talked about what I've done on campus. They want to know: Can we send you out and put you in front of our clients?"

"We're seeing these broad-based skills come up over and over, and that's what our local and regional recruiters tell us," said Nikki DiOrio, director of the Career Development & Internship Center at Assumption. "We put a lot of emphasis at Assumption on experiential learning."

Ms. DiOrio works one-on-one with students to help them think creatively about how they might get experience for a potential career interest.

She said, "Service is a great way to build some of the skills that employers are looking for."

Besides offering numerous community service opportunities locally and across the country, the CDIC sponsors annual career networking events such as speed networking with alumni and small groups of students.

Ms. DiOrio concurred with the survey findings that choice of major wasn't as important as other skills.

"At Assumption we encourage students to pursue something where they're passionate and not just pick a major on earning potential or where they think they'll get a job," she said.

An art history major, for example, was able to speak eloquently in a job interview about a course in which he had to evaluate a painting of Napoleon from a political perspective.

"That's where the value of liberal arts comes into play," Ms. DiOrio said. "Take things that are seemingly unrelated and make sense of them."

She added: "That's what Courtney is going to be doing on her audits."

The results seem to bear out this broad-based approach: Among the Assumption class of 2013, the most recent year analyzed, within six months of graduation 99 percent of students were employed, in graduate school or participating in a formal service program such as the Peace Corps.

Clark University's Liberal Education and Effective Practice program is also gaining renown for bridging liberal arts and careers, according to Mr. Murray and several national college guides.

Michelle Bata, associate dean and director of the LEEP Center at Clark said the university aims to weave experiences into students' education so they gain more than just the experience — they also learn from it.

"We want students to know why they're doing an internship and how it connects to their major," Ms. Bata said.

The LEEP program involves pre-internship advising; a "boot camp" with workshops on project management, collaboration and professionalism; required written reflections on the experience; and an oral presentation afterward, among other facets.

She offered the example of an English major interested in teaching and writing as a career and who developed a series of lesson guides for educators visiting the Worcester Art Museum with their students.

The practice of problem-solving in a real-world setting and communicating to a general audience was extremely valuable, regardless of what field the student goes into, she said.

"We know many students end up working in areas that have nothing to do with their major," Ms. Bata said.

Jeffrey Gagnon, assistant vice president for training and development at Amica Mutual Insurance Co. in Lincoln, R.I., which also hires recent graduates for its Westboro and other offices, would agree.

"We don't really search for any particular majors at all," he said. "The key skills are really the interpersonal communication skills. It's all about the relationships we build with our customers."

He said Amica trains new hires in the insurance-specific skills.

Teamwork, collaboration and anticipating needs of customers can be practiced at typical student jobs such as restaurant or retail work too, Mr. Gagnon said. "You don't have to have that great internship."

He applauded the move among many colleges and universities to integrate experiential learning into their academic programs.

Mr. Gagnon added that nearly half of the insurance industry workforce will be eligible to retire by 2025.

"Insurance doesn't have the sexy title next to it," he said, "but those entering the industry now will have opportunities to have greater responsibility than ever before. History major, anthropology major ... We can find great people in all different majors."

Contact Susan Spencer at susan.spencer@telegram.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanSpencerTG.

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