If you want one example of how advancing technology and global economic forces are rapidly reshaping the modern workplace, just take look at a recent graduating class at Michigan State University.
In 2014, Procter & Gamble hired graduates from 86 different majors at Michigan State, reflecting P&G’s eagerness to hedge its bets to find the right match. The same year, General Motors and Dow Chemical together hired just 32 graduates from the Big Ten university in East Lansing. Three decades ago, those two companies hired 340 graduates.
The seismic shift in how campus recruiting is done these days makes it extremely difficult for college graduates to figure out what they need to do to best prepare for the workforce.
“We’re asking 23-year-old new graduates to act like 35-year-old experienced workers,” said Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State.
We know there are odd things happening in the job market right now that we can’t seem to explain. The share of prime-working-age people who are in the labor force is at its lowest level since the mid-1980s. The share of men between 25 and 54 years old who aren’t employed has risen sharply in the past three decades. As a result, a middle-income American family makes substantially less money in inflation-adjusted terms than it did 15 years ago.
Entire industries are disappearing almost overnight. Legacy companies are quickly changing course, all disrupted by technology and globalization in recent years, even stalwarts like law, accounting, and medicine. One recent study predicts that nearly half of American jobs are at risk from automation and artificial intelligence.
What kinds of jobs should the education system be preparing students for? How does anyone know what the job market might look like in two or four years when today’s high-school seniors will be looking for employment? Giving solid career advice to teenagers or young adults these days seems about as safe a bet as picking stocks or trying to win at roulette.
So how are students — along with their parents, teachers, and professors — supposed to navigate this new world? What are employers looking for and what does the modern economy need in its workforce?
Two recent reports from Burning Glass, a company that mines and analyzes online job ads, provide a few clues as to what the future job market holds for new graduates:
1. General liberal-arts degrees are useful so long as they are combined with a skill. Between July 2012 and June 2013, Burning Glass found nearly a million jobs for entry-level positions requiring a bachelor’s degree. If those graduates had one of eight specific skills, like graphic design, basic statistics, or social media, some 900,000 more jobs would be available to them.
2. Soft skills are just as important as technical skills. Employers ask for soft skills — a term associated with how people get along with each other, communicate, and work in teams — far more often than any technical skills. The jobs that are growing the most are those that require high social skills as well as analytical skills, according to David Deming, an associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University.
While students are often encouraged to major in job-ready fields like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), graduates of those programs are unlikely to find employment without solid grounding in the liberal arts and experiences outside the classroom to build their soft skills.
In the future work world, it’s critical that new graduates stay one step ahead of technology and focus more on what computers can’t yet do well: show creativity, have judgment, play well with others, and navigate ambiguity.