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Take 3 Steps to Build In-Demand Job Skills at College

Christopher J. Gearon

When Luke Shumaker entered college in 2008, he planned to major in history. But with the job market crumbling, Shumaker's father suggested engineering as a career and history as a hobby.

"I'm pretty thankful I listened," says the Pennsylvania native, who majored in mechanical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh--Johnstown and had job offers months before graduating last year.

Mechanical engineering came in at No. 6 among the top 10 highest-paying occupations for the class of 2013, at an average of $64,000, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Seven engineering majors made the top 10, along with computer science, management information systems/business, and finance.

Recession-weary college applicants and families are thinking hard about the potential return on their investment. From a purely practical standpoint, unless you plan to go to graduate school, you're probably best off majoring in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, business and "anything to do with health care," says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

[See photos of 11 hot college majors.]

But applicants researching their choices have other options besides becoming a techie. Many schools, from traditional liberal arts colleges to flagship universities, are focusing on job prep as part of a four-year education. Here are three strategic steps students can take to put themselves on track to land that first job.

1. Choose your course of study carefully: Understandably, many parents want their college-bound kids majoring in engineering, the life sciences, computer science, accounting and business, says Minnesota-based college counselor Jason Lum. But don't dismiss the liberal arts entirely, he cautions.

According to a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 74 percent of employers say they would recommend a liberal arts education as preparation for success in a 21st century global economy. Nine of 10 surveyed employers say the ability to "think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems" is more important than one's undergraduate major.

One way to get this type of cred is through a minor. Unexpected pairings - business students minoring in English literature or biology, science majors choosing philosophy or religion - can help undergrads buff both their technical and soft skills. It works the other way, too. Music or humanities majors can make themselves more interesting by minoring in engineering, the life sciences or prelaw.

Another way is by making the most of distribution requirements. Taking literature classes "made me think outside the box," says Kathryn Abruzzo, who graduated this spring from Virginia Tech with a major in mechanical engineering and started working at Honeywell's aerospace division in Phoenix in July.

Virginia Tech requires all undergrads to choose about one-third of their credits from the Curriculum of Liberal Education. Meanwhile, Brown University, George Mason University and a growing number of schools are implementing "writing across the curriculum" and "writing in the disciplines" to develop students' ability to synthesize information in any subject, and convey it convincingly in the appropriate format and language.

[Check out other schools with notable writing programs.]

2. Look for real-world work opportunities: Internships or cooperative education programs - which typically alternate periods of professional experience, often salaried, with class time in a five-year curriculum - can give new grads a leg up in the job search.

Among class of 2013 graduates, those who boasted an internship were more likely to land a job, according to NACE. Sixty-three percent of paid interns received at least one job offer, while 37 percent of unpaid interns did. That compares to 35 percent of graduates with no internship experience who got a job offer.

"I know that prior work experience gave me an upper hand," says recent Drake University graduate Katie Minnick, "just in the fact that I had real-world experience and prior interview experience." Minnick credits an internship and subsequent paid apprenticeship with magazine publisher Meredith Corp. for her success at landing a postgraduation job with health care information technology giant Cerner Corp.

Many colleges now facilitate internships. American University's School of Communication sponsors internships with media organizations in the nation's capital, for example, and Miami Dade College has students interning with Florida Power & Light, Baptist Health of South Florida and other local employers.

Meanwhile, interest in co-op education has jumped since the job market slumped; co-op powerhouse Northeastern University, for example, received 47,359 applications for 2,800 freshmen seats this fall, 74 percent more than in 2006.

"Northeastern's emphasis on experiential learning and the co-op was the big draw," says Taylor Hogan, who left in July for his first six-month co-op with Heart Capital, a social investment firm in Cape Town, South Africa. The co-op gives Hogan on-the-ground experience in urban agriculture and social entrepreneurship, his two keenest interests.

[See other schools with stellar examples of internships or co-ops.]

3. Explore widely and delve deep: Other resume attention-getters include in-depth theses or projects, undergraduate research with a faculty member and study abroad.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute requires two projects that are supposed to solve real problems or address real needs. For example, 2013 civil engineering graduate Marco Villar teamed up with classmates to develop cheap, sustainable paper insulation for housing in impoverished communities in Namibia that could also create jobs.

Finally, just as technical majors may want to take writing or public speaking courses, humanities and other non-techie students should consider adding some computer science expertise to their list of credentials.

"A computer today is like the ax of the Stone Age and is key to efficient survival in today's world," argues Samir Khuller, chair of the University of Maryland's computer science department. "Students in any field will have a competitive advantage if they can understand the algorithms available to help them do their own work."

The bottom line, says Georgetown's Carnevale, is that getting equipped as fully as possible for the workplace takes thought and planning. And it is up to forward-thinking students themselves.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.

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