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Students need skills to pay the bills

Let's be blunt: A degree isn't enough. The skills you can bring to the table are the true dealmaker in today's job market.

Rex Huppke

I Just Work Here

September 3, 2012

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Parents are often told — by magazines, television news shows and Oprah — that they are doing things wrong.

Don't give kids regular milk; give them organic or they'll turn into mutant cow people. Don't use plastic cups, they contain BPA, which gives children gills. Don't keep your toaster so close to the bathtub.

But even if your kids are grown, gill-less and on their own in college, there's still something you might be doing wrong. It involves preparing them to (hopefully) enter the workforce.

The thinking used to be relatively simple: go to college, get a degree and then you'll find a job in your field. But between the bad economy and the diversification of job types available, today's college students need more guidance to hone their skills and prepare to find work.

Elliot Lasson, executive director of Joblink of Maryland Inc., a nonprofit employment organization, recently wrote an interesting blog post on this subject. He highlighted several areas in which parents can provide advice.

One is balancing idealism with realism.

"When we talk about college students especially, they are going into the world to make the world a better place, to change the way things are, to rock the boat and change the status quo," Lasson said in an interview. "And that's great and parents need to support that idealism, but it has to be a balance. At the end of the day, if a kid wants to be able to move out and live independently, they're going to have to pay the bills."

To that end, parents and students need to remember that there's a difference between a degree and skills. Companies are now less focused on what kind of degree you have and more interested in what abilities you can bring to the table — right now.

"Someone with a degree in English can't hang up a shingle and say, 'Hey I'm a graduate of English from Northwestern University, come talk to me,'" Lasson said. "What is it you can do? There are jobs involving writing skills — technical writing, writing for the Web — that did not exist even 10 years ago. The end-all now is how you leverage that degree in English or philosophy or whatever from Northwestern or Brandeis into something that you can actually use to be competitive in the job market."

This requires considerable forethought. There may be critical job skills a student can hone well before graduation, but parents and students can't wait until senior year to start identifying them.

"People still tend to think the person goes to college, they wander around and see what interests them, they get a major, they switch it a few times, and probably three months before graduating they think they'll figure out exactly what to do," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "That won't cut it anymore."

Research is key to helping students figure out which of the 18 billion possible career paths might make the most sense. Carnevale noted that the glossy college catalogs students receive don't come with charts that say what kind of money a person in a certain major might make and what jobs are available.

"That data exist, but nobody gives it to them," he said. "What do people with this major do for work? Go to your state employment office and find the data that tell you this. Go to the school and say, 'People with my major over the last few years, where are they working? What kind of money are they making? Are they working in their field of study?' If the answer is 'no, they're not working, no they're earnings aren't very great and they can't pay their loans,' then you may need to sit down and think for a while."

Lasson suggests reading job descriptions well ahead of the search. They can help identify some of the skills required — or at least sought — for jobs a student might pursue.

It's even wise to look beyond the first job out of college. If the student hopes to be a Web designer at a major advertising firm in the next five to 10 years, read those listings to get a sense of what professional achievements are needed.

"It's so important to look proactively on behalf of children and understand that, at least in today's job market, employers can be very picky," Lasson said. "We need to mentor and guide students to get on that conveyor belt. It can be a tough sell for kids, so sometimes parents have to be a little more convincing."

Given the exorbitant cost of a college education, taking the time — starting probably as early as sophomore year — to map out an employment plan makes sense. It's an investment — why not take advantage of it?

This doesn't mean a young adult's career path has to be set in stone. But just going through the process will likely teach a college student a valuable lesson — that the diploma itself doesn't come with any guarantees.

Take my diploma. I graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, with dreams of someday inventing the world's first frosting cannon. Had I planned ahead, perhaps …

But instead, I'm doomed to a life of writing workplace advice. And the world is stuck dispensing frosting at agonizingly low velocities.