By Clare Kaufman
A recent report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce made headlines with the claim that "Not all majors are created equal." The report, "Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings," draws on data from the American Community Survey in 2009 and 2010 to argue that some majors fare better in today's job market than others.
College matters...but is college major a major factor?
College graduates have a dramatic advantage over high school graduates in the job market -- 14 percentage points, to be exact. With this significant spread, it's safe to conclude that your college degree is a sound investment. But how much of a role does your college major play in the job search?
"Hard Times" found a fairly consistent advantage for technical and applied majors on the job market compared with humanities and arts fields. Business, health care and education majors fared pretty well straight out of college, even in the depths of a recession. Humanities and liberal arts majors, by contrast, faced a higher unemployment rate in 2009 and 2010.
Study author Anthony Carnevale draws the conclusion that the course of study you choose is most important:
"Up until 1982, the fact that you went to college and got a degree is what mattered. That's not true anymore. Getting the degree is part of the game, but statistically, the most important part is what you take," said Carnevale, quoted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Why you are more important than your major
But some experts tell a different story. Whether you have a college degree matters; what field the degree is in does not.
"What I hear from employers in greater numbers than ever is that candidates are not their majors. [Employers] are seeking talent first and then majors," said Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw University.
Carnevale's own data seems to support Langerud's point. Over time, the employment advantage for certain majors shrinks. As workers gain experience or go back to school for further training, the edge for technical and applied majors all but vanishes.
Why? According to Langerud, employers are looking for potential in a recent college graduate -- strong leadership and teamwork skills, some quantitative skills and project management ability. If an applicant can think, speak and write well, employers may be willing to invest in specific job skills training.
"In this talent economy, a single set of skills developed only within the context of a major is too narrow to be competitive for the number of openings available to new graduates," Langerud said.
So how can you maximize your potential on the job market? Take steps while in school to build core skills and prepare for the job market. Internships, campus leadership roles, team projects, service learning and networking programs can all make you a more polished and professional job candidate, no matter what your college major is.
Not all majors are created equal, but neither are all college students. Take steps to develop and demonstrate your value to an employer by building transferable skills that transcend specific industries, and you can compete in tomorrow's job market regardless of your college major.
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