Employers Care More About Skills Than Your Degree — So Here's What You Should Do


Our generation has seen the cost of a college degree inflate dramatically while simultaneously becoming far less valuable than it would have been 15 or 20 years ago.

It's not just that there are a lot of them or that more people have access to financing and are able to get a degree. Rather, the quality of the education has dropped, the price has skyrocketed, and the value of what you do learn has become increasingly less cohesive with what employers want to see. (See also: 10 Ways to Improve Your Decision-Making Skills)

So what does this mean for you, Joe and Jane College Grad Job-Seeker? How can you advance yourself now that a degree is no longer the be all and end all? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Develop Skills Outside of the Formal Classroom

It's not that formal education doesn't have value. But we live in a time when we have such a vast amount of information available to us, that we can (in part) educate ourselves.

This is particularly true if you're going into a technical field or something computer-related. For example, those who might hire a computer programmer probably don't care if you have a degree in computer science. Since they need you to write code, develop web applications, or design web pages, they want to see you do those things. On your own time as you're preparing to enter the workforce, brush up on the skills that you'll be marketing. (See also: 8 Ways to Continue Your Education Without Going Back to School)

2. Focus on What You Enjoy Doing

Most colleges focus on a broad list of study topics when outlining their requirements for a degree. They call them "core classes" or general education requirements. The problem is that you end up spending just a little bit of time in a variety of different concepts and areas of study. You don't really focus on one particular topic until your junior year, at which point you've got at most, two years left to study it. Spend some time focusing on what actually interests you as it relates to your career. Get good at those things and make it evident to potential employers.

3. Rework Your Resume

While bearing in mind that employers want to see skills first and foremost, make sure to highlight those on your resume by putting them front and center. List relevant technical skills in a bulleted list, then move into work experience with a bulleted list of notable accomplishments at each job.

4. Build a Portfolio

If you're building a skill that can be displayed by completed work (web developer, graphic designer, logo creator, writer or journalist) look for opportunities to do either freelance or pro-bono work so that you can develop a portfolio of completed work. You'll set yourself far above the fray if you can show this to employers, so take your time to complete tangible work and document it for display.

5. Network

For people to know about your skills, they ultimately need to know you in at least a marginally personal way. The best way to make sure they do is to spend some time networking and getting to know the people in your industry. You can start on a local basis and connect through lunches or personal interaction, or go with a more broad approach and connect with people via LinkedIn or Twitter. Talk about your goals and interests with no strings attached. You're likely to get an enthusiastic response and a quick ally for when you are on a specific job hunt.

6. Work on Your Communications Skills

Being able to write and speak effectively are nearly universal requirements in today's workplace. Part of the reason is that so much communication isn't face-to-face but rather occurs over phone or computer. That means everyone needs to be able to write well and communicate effectively over a phone when the parties can't see one another.

There are a number of practical ways to improve verbal communication, like reading and listening to spoken word (podcasts or radio). The best way to improve written communication is to simply write. Respond to emails, blog, or just write down your thoughts for 20 or 30 minutes every day. You'd be surprised how much that alone can help.

7. Research Your Industry

If you want to focus your career in a specific direction, it pays to know what's going on with that industry in a broad sense. Read magazines, blogs, or just talk to people who run in those same circles so you can a feel for the trends, issues and substantive topics that are guiding that industry.

8. Learn Your Niche

You might have studied business, but it takes awhile to develop a specialty within the broad confines of the business world. It doesn't do you much good to go into an interview and say, "I'm a business major."

What makes more sense to an employer is if you can speak on their terms, using the same kind of language they use in the job description that brought you to their office. For example, "I'm an expert in small-business startup consulting and online marketing. Here's a list of small businesses that I've worked with."

You've got to have an area and a specialty and be able to target jobs looking for people with your skill set.

9. Think About the Culture You Want to Work In

Some people thrive in a team or with a lot of specific instruction while others work much better independently, without a lot of supervision or oversight. Think about what kind of culture would suit your working style the best and make sure to inquire about it in interviews.

10. Work Smart and Hard

TV host and all-around badass Mike Rowe tells a great story about going into a college counselor's office and being told to work smart, not hard. Ever since, he has consistently pointed out the value in working smart and hard, and has encouraged people not to despise skilled labor or a trade. In your pursuit of the perfect job, know that both sides of the coin are important; education and specific skills.

Best of Both Worlds

It's not that education and skilled work can't, or don't mix. In fact, they go hand in hand. So if you've got your degree, that's a good thing. Employers do like it. But it's not going to rope you a job. You still need to have a skill and a specialty. Take the time to identify and cultivate that ability. When you're being interviewed, you'll notice a major difference in your own confidence and how employers respond to you.

How have you highlighted your skillset to a potential employer? Please share in comments!

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