It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success

June 27, 2014


This article was written by Shea Parikh, a summer intern at Amani Institute and a student at Davidson College in North Carolina, USA. Shea is a rising junior studying Political Science and Economics.

For many undergraduate students, declaring a major is believed to be the defining moment of their collegiate experience. Packaged together with the all-adorned GPA, many employers have traditionally viewed this dynamic-duo as both an encompassing definition of an undergraduate’s overall capabilities, as well as a convenient tool to evaluate their potential success as a future professional. However, in light of both the recent economic downturn and the increasingly competitive global economy, employers have now shifted away from these narrow-minded assessments and have expressed concerns about whether or not college graduates are equipped with the necessary skills to adequately contribute in an evolving and demanding workplace.

A 2013 report released by the Hart Research Associates has highlighted these concerns and has empirically suggested that we as a society have perhaps placed too much importance on a student’s major of choice. The report, from a survey of 318 employers, concluded that innovative capability, diversified capacities, and applied learning are all measures of competence that prove to be much more insightful when hiring new employees.   

This paradigm shift has come at the hands of a global economy that is now facing more complex and challenging problems than in the past. Employers have expressed that the demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems are much more important than what the applicant studied in their undergraduate career. Out of the 318 employees surveyed, 95 percent said they give hiring preferences to college graduates with the skills that will enable them to contribute to innovation in the workplace. 95 percent! That isn’t just another vague statistic, it means that across the board, employers have come to value innovation as the premium benchmark for hiring their employees as they believe this is the quality that will help their companies stay afloat.

Furthermore, there is a broad agreement among all employers that regardless of a student’s major, they should undoubtedly have the educational experiences that teaches them about building civic capacity, broad knowledge about the liberal arts and sciences, and cultures outside the United States. Many believe that with these experiences comes the capacity to excel in ‘cross-cutting’ fields that demand a multifaceted skill set.   

So the question is, since most universities are not facilitating these necessary skills, where exactly do students get this innovative capacity? Or better yet, what must universities do to better prepare students with these skills? Some would say that innovation is an intangible quality that you cannot simply study or force—you either have it or you don’t. The researchers at Hart Research Associates pointed to multiple vehicles that employers believe drive innovation. Most importantly, they argue that universities must step outside of the vacuum they are currently operating in and expand their curriculua towards high-quality, hands-on learning, that includes things such as internships, senior projects, undergraduate research, global and community-based projects, and any other experiential learning programs.

Employers want higher-education institutions to ensure that every college graduate, regardless of their major, achieves much higher levels of evidence-based reasoning, research skills, complex problem-solving skills, and ethical decision-making.

A couple of months back I talked with an alumnus of my college who is currently working for McKinsey and Company and her most insightful piece of advice, verbatim, was that my major of choice essentially means nothing. She advised that most employers do not necessarily care what exactly you studied in college, as chances are you will have no idea what you are doing when you first arrive on the job. Instead, they care about whether or not you have the ability to ask the right questions, thrive in an environment that is consistently offering new and complex problems, and work with colleagues that have different views than you.

These capabilities, as the Hart Research Associates report clearly outlines, are only attainable through real-world, hands-on experiences. Employers want evidence that graduates have some aptitude in field-specific skills and such evidence is made viable through assessing things such as an individual’s electronic portfolio and past work experiences, and not so much their GPA and field of study.

Essentially, what it boils down to is that, with today’s colleges and universities leaving a supply shortage in adequate talent for employers, choosing a major is not the same thing as choosing a career. 

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