One of the great fears parents have about college education is that after all the time and expense, their son or daughter will have skills that are unmarketable, or he or she will be underemployed after graduation. I’m accustomed to people expecting me to provide them with the response that “employers want well-rounded individuals who love to learn for the sake of learning.” I don’t buy that response, though, because it creates a vision of the intellectual obesity portrayed weekly on TV shows like “Frasier” by the main character and his brother Niles.

It’s OK to let your child major in the liberal arts
While majoring in a liberal arts program may not guarantee your child’s work future, it’s not a recipe for unemployment, either. The key is whether or not your son or daughter also learns the skills that employers want. These skills can be grouped into 10 “know-how” groups (see box, right), based on my conversations with employers and my experience with more than 1,000 students during the past 30 years.

Potential employers will be looking for indicators that tell them if an applicant has these skills, and so will graduate schools and professional programs like law, management, public administration, and business.

As a parent, what can you do to help your son or daughter acquire these skills?

1. Resist the temptation to ask, “So what are you going to do with an XYZ major?” If she doesn’t know what major to pursue, emphasize that it is the skills that count and the major is secondary. By moving the discussion from her major to these skills you are encouraging your daughter to find the right beacon for success.

2. Encourage community service, internships, and good summer work experiences. Anything you can do to get your son out of the academic world and into the real world will have a major impact. For example, working for the local Boys and Girls Club in a youth program to develop verbal communication and teamwork skills, studying the fine arts off-campus or abroad to steep himself in the art and culture of a country or region to which he’s drawn, or taking a summer internship.

3. Suggest courses that require writing, working in teams, and using computer and statistical skills. Be aware that courses where these experiences are available may not be in your child’s major. Management schools, for example, have courses where students from any department on campus can develop and even implement a business plan based on the student’s idea for a viable business.

Ultimately, all people who have successful careers realize that it’s their skills and character that count the most in moving ahead in their chosen field. Help your son or daughter take advantage of the college years to get those skills. In doing so, your child will avoid the anxiety and friction that follows between the time many young adults graduate and the time they land that first meaningful job.

Ten “Know-How” Skills for College Graduates

Establishing a Work Ethic 
Be Diligent o Be Honest o Manage Your Time o Manage Your Money

Developing Physical Skills 
Stay Well o Look Good o Type 35 WPM Error Free o Take Legible Notes

Communicating Verbally 
Converse One-on-One o Present to Groups o Use Visual Displays

Communicating in Writing 
Write Well o Edit and Proof o Use Word-Processing Tools o Send Information Electronically

Working Directly with People 
Build Good Relationships o Work in Teams o Teach Others

Influencing People 
Manage Efficiently o Sell Successfully o Politick Wisely o Lead Effectively

Gathering Information 
Use Library Holdings o Use Commercial Databases o Search the Web o Conduct Interviews o Use Surveys o Keep and Use Records

Using Quantitative Tools
Use Numbers o Use Graphs and Tables o Use Spreadsheet Programs

Asking and Answering the Right Questions
Detect Nonsenseo Pay Attention to Detail o Apply Knowledge o Evaluate Actions and Policies

Solving Problems 
Identify Problems o Develop Solutions o Launch Solutions

Bill Coplin is a professor of public policy at the Maxwell School and in the College of Arts and Sciences, Syracuse University, and author of Ten Things Employers Want You to Learn in College (Ten Speed Press, 2003). He can be reached through

Published in “Our Children: The National PTA Magazine”, Volume 29, Number 6, April/May 2004