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Workforce Trends

Interpersonal and other soft skills are at the top of employers’ wish lists. Technical degrees such as accounting, IT and engineering are in demand as well.

By Debbie Briner
From the February 2013 issue of Columbus CEO

Your child is graduating from high school and heading to college to pursue a degree in a lifelong interest: poetry writing. Meanwhile, you’re biting your tongue to stop from blurting out, “What kind of job can you find with a degree in that?”

Maybe it’s not the stressor you think it is.

As the unemployment rate continues its gradual decline both nationally and in Ohio, more jobs are available for new college grads as well as those who are unemployed and underemployed. To boot, educators from some Central Ohio colleges and universities say the field someone earned a degree in doesn’t automatically disqualify them for a job that’s seemingly unrelated.

When Otterbein University hosts recruiters on its Westerville campus, “Very few of them check specific majors,” says Ryan Brechbill, director of the school’s Center for Career and Professional Development. Instead, they tend to search for prospective employees who have strong interpersonal and people skills along with the ability to think, brainstorm and look for solutions—“some good, old-fashioned liberal arts skills,” he says. “The ability to problem-solve, the ability to communicate effectively with fellow employees, enthusiasm for learning and curiosity.”

Susan Millsap, Otterbein’s interim assistant dean of academic affairs, agrees. The school consistently hears that employers want prospective employees to possess skills outside their college major—the so-called “soft skills.” Among the questions employers are asking interviewees, says Millsap: Do they have good communication skills—written and verbal? Can they work as part of a team? Can they solve problems? Can they think critically?

Gary Swisher, director of career development at Ohio Dominican University, says he hears the same thing: “soft skills—communication, interpersonal skills, initiative, teamwork, that kind of thing.”

“The term ‘soft skills’ still gets used by a lot of companies looking to hire, particularly new graduates,” says Columbus Chamber President and CEO Michael Dalby. And they’re bemoaning what they consider to be a lack of these skills in many applicants.

Many colleges and universities, as well as a growing number of employers, are turning to internships—not only as a vehicle for students to get a close-up view of their chosen field, but also to show them what it’s like to be in a real work environment every day.

The chamber is a proponent of internships and has set up columbusinternships.com to help businesses establish an intern program. There are benefits for the employer and the student, Dalby says. Employers can tap the skills of more than 100,000 students attending local colleges and universities. For those looking to get their foot in the door before graduation, internships offer that, plus the opportunity to work with professionals in the corporate, nonprofit, public sector or small business worlds.

Dalby says internships that last at least a semester are more beneficial than those that cover a few weeks. They help develop job-specific and soft skills, he says, as well as a related set of invaluable skills: understanding the written—and unwritten—expectations of the work world. That can run the gamut from knowing what to wear to communicating ideas effectively to staying late at the end of the day if a deadline hasn’t been met, says Dalby.

Motorists Insurance Group President and CEO John Bishop says many new employees come to the company with “the business intelligence side, the fundamentals, but we have to work with some of their soft skills, because it really is a service industry.”

 

In-Demand Skills

Even with all the attention to soft skills, there is still demand for hard skills, particularly in fields that rely heavily on very specific knowledge and/or technical skills.

Brechbill cites rankings of the college majors that generally offer the best job prospects upon graduation: “Those are typically accounting, computer science, business management, some engineering,” he says.

“Certainly the demand for good computer skills is up there,” adds Millsap. The same is true for health-care workers.

“Our nursing program is bursting at the seams. And all of them are finding employment once they get out,” Millsap says. Public relations is another strong area, including jobs with hospitals and other medical institutions that need to communicate news about the ever-changing industry.

“You’re also seeing a growth of jobs in the nonprofit sector,” says Millsap. “Now they don’t pay as well, of course, but we rely more and more on nonprofits to make the connections because of cuts going on at the state and federal level.”

Technology skills are always in demand, and always evolving. “If students graduate from college in four years, the technology has had changes already. So there is the need to constantly stay on top of it. And that’s a hard thing to do,” Millsap says.

At the chamber, job demand is always on the radar. “Growth continues in the health-care side,” Dalby says. “Information technology continues to be strong—programmers, network technicians, Java developers—those still seem to be strong areas.” The large financial services industry in Central Ohio needs actuaries with the specialized math skills required for those jobs, he says.

Another significant demand on the horizon lies within the insurance industry, particularly in Central Ohio because so many major companies call it home. Cheryl Hay, director for workforce development at Columbus State Community College, calls it “the sleeping giant.” She says it’s projected that another 17,000 insurance-related workers will be needed by 2016 to 2018. (See “Job Training Efforts”)

Hay says Columbus State is working with a task force of local insurance company leaders to help provide education and training for jobs across the industry: in information technology, marketing, event and meeting planning, administration and accounting.

To help educate and train future underwriters, salespeople and claims and customer service representatives, a related degree program is now offered at the University of Cincinnati and is on tap at Kent State University. Locally, a pathway program to Franklin University from Columbus State will educate future claims adjusters, Hay says.

Baby boomer insurance workers will begin to retire in a few years. “They’ll need people with skill sets and talents to replace them,” Dalby says.

 

Selling Yourself

So what if your child still prefers to be a poet instead of an underwriter? Go with it, local college career counselors and administrators advise.

The last thing a student should do is choose a major solely because related jobs are easier to come by. Why? “They’re going to hate it,” says Brechbill.

“What I tell students as well as parents,” says Millsap, “is the student has to be interested in the major that they choose.” Otherwise, there’s a good chance he or she won’t finish that degree.

So follow your bliss. Work hard to complete degree requirements. Take advantage of community service and extracurricular opportunities. Learn how to sell yourself and all of the skills you’re acquiring. “Start to look for internships that connect your degree to the workforce,” Millsap says.

Applicants may have to learn how to sell themselves as well as their skill sets—even if they don’t appear to relate to the job they’re pursuing. “If I’m a student whose major is in French literature, what in the world are you going to do with that? No. 1, I’m really smart. No. 2, I know two languages. And No. 3, I am understanding all the connections between the things I have learned,” Millsap says.

Whether someone is a new college graduate, unemployed, underemployed or looking to land a job outside his or her current field, consider how current skills match up or are adaptable to what a prospective employer seeks. “That’s why we’re stressing the importance of internships,” says Brechbill. “It’s really zeroing in.”

It’s especially useful for liberal arts graduates because the job path can take many turns. For those who have earned a degree in English, psychology or even one of the sciences, says Brechbill, “There is not always that linear progression” as there would be in teaching or accounting. “You’re preparing not for a job, but for many jobs.”

That’s good advice in any event. The days of employees landing a job, then staying with that employer until retirement, are now the exception, not the rule.

Brechbill says employees change jobs an average of eight to 12 times during their careers. They’ll also switch gears completely to a new career field four to five times. “That doesn’t necessarily put them on a linear path,” he says.

Perhaps all of this contributes to employers’ woes that they can’t find new hires with the skills they need and want. “It’s one of the things we still hear,” Dalby says.

Brechbill hears those comments, too, along with the lament that not enough applicants even apply for openings. Employers may be “under a lot of pressure to get people on board to relieve some of the workload current employees have,” he says.

Some employers could help themselves by reconsidering how they look for new employees. Technology and the Internet have altered the job search process, creating a set of complicated factors on both sides of the search. Part of the problem in filling jobs “has nothing to do with skill sets,” Hay says. “Job searchers don’t know how to search for a job electronically.”

Job-hunting is not like the old days, Dalby says, when all help-wanted ads appeared in the daily newspaper. What’s more, using technology to scan résumés and weed out those that lack certain keywords in the job description may eliminate good candidates. Writing job descriptions that are too narrow might do the same, he says.

The trick is to get employers “to be a little more realistic” about prospective employees’ skill sets, Dalby says. “Honestly, I think there’s still a lot of talented employees out there.”

Debbie Briner is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the February 2013 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.