Choosing a major in this economy

McClatchy Newspapers

When Carter Schimpff enrolled at Texas Christian University four years ago, he began work on what he thought was a marketable degree: a bachelor of business administration with a major in finance and a minor in real estate. At the time, housing markets were booming, and millions of dollars were being made in the investment and mortgage industries.

No one has to tell Schimpff how much the economy has changed. After sending his resume or filling out applications for 250 to 300 positions since March, he is still looking for a full-time job. A bookstore even turned him down for a cashier's job, saying he was overqualified.

"You go to college so you can get a job. I never figured a degree would preclude you from getting a job," he said. The best he could do was landing a part-time job just weeks ago as a door-to-door roofing salesman.

Mindful of the worst job market in more than 25 years, many students enrolling in colleges and universities this fall are considering majors that they believe will land them stable careers.

Students with degrees in nursing, health care, accounting, computer science, economics, general science and engineering report the most success in finding jobs, say local and national experts and college placement officials. Those with degrees in finance, journalism, graphic design, and international relations have had tougher times. Liberal arts graduates also struggle.

Still, career experts say students should major in whatever area most interests them, even if it's a less specialized liberal arts field, such as English or sociology. In a national survey, communication, followed closely by a strong work ethic and teamwork skills, was rated as the most important attribute sought by employers.

"One of the things that I have always said is liberal arts teaches you how to learn," said Dan Naegeli, director of the University of North Texas career center. "When you go out into the world of work, you're going to have to continue to learn."

Texas Health Resources, one of the region's largest employers, uses a wide range of workers at its 14 hospitals and other sites. The 18,000-employee company hires about 2,000 people a year.

It looks for candidates with "promise behaviors," recruitment manager Justin Clem said.

"The resume is great. ... Education is wonderful," Clem said. "But when we interview, we really want to look at situations they were put into in the past, what actions they took, and what were the results. Do those results really support treating other people with courtesy, dignity and respect? And communicating clearly and earning people's trust? And thinking before they act?"

The company also looks for people who have a record of providing outstanding service, said Janelle Browne, vice president of human resources. If a student mowed lawns or worked in a fast-food restaurant, she said, "the things that we would want to hear is how you attended to providing service to the people that you were working with and how you were attending to the quality of the product that you have.

"Experience is always helpful, but it is not always the guarantee that person is going to get the job," she added. "We look at the behaviors and the attitude they bring in and their willingness to be a part of the team and to pay attention to the patients and the families and the visitors."

Lockheed Martin, which has 146,000 workers worldwide, is constantly seeking workers with a "STEM" (science, technology, engineering and math) background, said Norman Robbins, senior manager of community relations. Lockheed Martin estimates that it will hire 90,000 scientists and engineers companywide over the next five to 10 years, he said.

Lockheed Martin has all sorts of jobs in all sorts of fields. The company has its own fire department, legal staff and hospital, he said.

One of the skills recruiters consider is the ability to work in teams.

"Most of what we do is problem solving, and you get people with different kinds of skills together to solve the problem," Robbins said. "If you're real bright but you can't get along with anybody, you're not going to be as successful as you will be if you can work in teams."

The company also focuses on records of achievement. For example, Lockheed Martin will pay bonuses to students who graduate in the top quarter of their class.

"We get so many applications, we can try to pick the best, and that's what we certainly ought to do," he said.

A mistake some students make is to pick a major primarily because they think it will lead to a hot career, said Katharine Brooks, author of the book "You Majored in What?" The market changes; hence the problem finance majors have finding jobs, she points out.

"If I want to be a nurse and there's a nursing school, it makes perfect sense to enroll in the nursing school," said Brooks, director of the Liberal Arts Career Services at the University of Texas at Austin.

If students don't know what career they want to pursue, they might visit the college bookstore and see what textbooks they would most want to read, Brooks said.

"That might be a clue that that's an area of interest where they're likely to get good grades, where they're likely to enjoy the subject," Brooks said.

"When I look at where philosophy majors go, at alumni lists from here at UT and also from other schools where I've worked at, they're CEOs of companies, they're lawyers, they're doctors, they're surgeons because they're bright people," Brooks said.

Internships, jobs, contacts and the ability to market a degree can sometimes be more important than a student's field of study, experts said.

"It's not necessarily the major, but how you prepare," Naegeli said.

Jorge Callado, who graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in May, received several job offers. He has a bachelor of business administration degree in finance, had a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, worked 38 hours a week while in school, held leadership positions at school organizations, can speak Spanish fluently and was a member of UT-Arlington's selective Goolsby Leadership Academy.

A key advantage was his involvement in the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting. At the group's August conference in Phoenix, Callado met with recruiters from such companies as Goldman Sachs and Disney World. He has begun a management training program with Microsoft.

"I just got really lucky," he said. "Everything fell into place."

Sometimes students might need to consider careers that don't have a direct connection to their majors, said Laurence Shatkin of New Jersey, author of several career-related books, including "150 Best Recession-Proof Jobs." He said Schimpff, 22, might want to consider marketing research, a growing industry. Schimpff's analytical and real estate skills may serve him well in that field, Shatkin said.

"There are some people who have exceptional ability, and they're going to make out even in the riskiest careers," Shatkin said. "Be cognizant of the risks of what you're doing, particularly if you're going into something where there's a lot of competition."


c) 2009, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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