Last week, my new book, There Is Life After College, was released by HarperCollins and I’ve been asked several times since then by students, parents, employers, and others about the skills every new college graduate needs to succeed in today’s competitive and ever-changing job market.
Here are five critical skills every new college graduate should have:
1. Every graduate needs to be “digitally aware.” Students entering college and the workforce now often are referred to as “digital natives” because they were raised on technology from a very young age. But their relationship has been largely passive: switch on the device and use it. Being digitally aware isn’t about turning more people into computer geeks. It’s about moving from a passive relationship with technology to a more active one — especially in understanding the how and why behind machines, not just the what.
It’s no longer good enough to know how to use a computer. Understanding the programming language behind the apps on your iPhone, or the basics of Artificial Intelligence are all now seen as basic foundational skills by many employers. Learning to program is much like learning a second language was in the 20th century: You might not become proficient enough to move overseas, but you could get by if you traveled to a particular country.
“Every major company today has been transformed into a technology company,” said Brian Fitzgerald, head of the Business-Higher Education forum, an organization that brings together senior business and university executives. “Even non-tech jobs are tech jobs.”
2. Every graduate needs to know how to navigate through life without a syllabus. In an economy where jobs are increasingly threatened by automation, the future belongs to those graduates who possess “agency” — who act with purpose and determination to drive themselves across a career map without clearly marked roads.
If students are simply good at taking tests, jumping through hoops, and following the rules, chances are pretty good that they’ll struggle in their start after college. The problem is that students are failing to build in college the resilient muscles that they will need as adults to manage risk and succeed in unpredictable lives.
Too many students depend on their undergraduate years to spoon-feed them the experiences that will shape them for the future. They sit back and wait for professors to deliver lessons in the classroom. They participate in campus life, but too often from the sidelines, and so they lack any deep engagement in activities that provide much-needed skills for the job market. They fail to cultivate relationships with professors or staff on campus who might lend advice and act as mentors. And they are reluctant to chase after experiences, whether undergraduate research, study abroad, or internships, that help them discover their passions and arm them with the interpersonal skills so in demand by employers today.
3. Every graduate needs to be a learning animal. Schools are turning out students trained to take tests, but not those who have the ability to come up with answers to problems not yet imagined.
For the first two decades of our lives, someone else directs our learning — parents, teachers, professors. But once young adults enter the workforce they need to self-direct their own learning for the rest of their lives. They need to be curious about what’s around them.
“If you don’t seek to learn, you don’t try new things,” said Bob Iger, CEO of Disney. “I don’t think you can run a business today in a very dynamic marketplace without being curious.” When Iger interviews people for jobs, he asks them about the books they have read, the movies they have seen, or where they have recently traveled. “I try to get under their skin,” he said, “to determine their level of curiosity.”
4. Every graduate needs to understand how to use what they learned in school outside of college. Students know how to learn theory in the classroom and apply it on a job, but the world of work they are about to enter is more of a mash-up of activities. They need the ability to generalize core principles and apply them in many different places.
This is what’s often called transfer learning. Our ability to drive almost any car on the market without reading its manual is an example of knowledge transfer, as is our ability to solve math equations involving any number once we learn the basic formula.
The concept sounds simple enough, but today’s students rarely have the chance to learn through problem solving or to be involved in the kind of projects that reinforce skills that can be used in multiple settings.
5. Every graduate needs to be humble. Recent college graduates are largely conditioned to avoid failure or didn’t hold part-time jobs in high-school where they might have worked with people of different ages and perspectives so they often come to the workplace after college much more self-confident — some might say cocky — than previous generations did.
One tech company executive told me of a recent graduate who asked for an opportunity to develop new products. When the company suggested a “hackathon” with a specific theme — to build an app for new hires — this employee proposed working on other business ideas instead and wanted to be sure she would own the rights to whatever she started.
New graduates need to be patient about their careers and realistic about their roles within a company. Given we’re going to be living longer and working longer, patience is perhaps the most important quality in life after college.
This article is adapted from Jeffrey J. Selingo’s new book, “There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow.“