What’s the Best Major for Getting to a Great Career?

What's the best college major for the workplace of the future? Is technology the only path? We talked with Michigan education experts to get more insight.

Our world is changing constantly, thanks to the rapid pace of innovation. Technology impacts everything from the way we order lunch to the way we conduct business, and it’ll affect the workplace of the future, big time.

What hasn’t changed, though, is that everyone wants a guarantee. Parents want certainty that their kids will be equipped to pursue a career full of opportunities, personal fulfillment, and an ample salary to pay the bills. Students usually want the same thing, and parents have plenty of advice about how to reach that goal.

But here’s the rub: Parental wisdom is based on what worked 25 or 30 years ago — or worse, on a misunderstanding of the modern job market.

We asked experts to share the best ways for young people to prepare to enter the fast-evolving, high-tech workplace of the future.

Specifically, we wanted the score on the best majors, the smartest skills, the surefire guarantee for getting the great job of the future. Here’s what they said.

Tech major or not, everyone will need digital skills

Michigan is a major center for advanced industry, and this matters more than other types of industry. That’s because it involves innovation and high-paying jobs, says Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director with the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

“Detroit is a top 10 player, and I think it’s in the top five for the number of different advanced industries it has,” Muro says. Selecting a course of study that incorporates information technology, data analysis and software development will help a student secure work in advanced industry.

Brookings research also shows that all sectors are increasing their reliance on digital tools, which means students who study non-tech majors, like psychology, English and liberal arts, should seek out experiences in college to develop digital skills. They then should highlight them on their resumes, says Katie Korpi, director for career services at Northern Michigan University.

Research, data analysis for class projects, even crafting a profile on LinkedIn, are all opportunities to build skills that employers want.

“There can be so much magic in recognizing a skill that you have developed and then adding that to your resume,” says Korpi. By seeking out opportunities for research or taking on tech roles in student organizations, every student can gain tech experience valuable to the job market.

Is a STEM major the only way to go?

Selecting a major just because it makes financial sense is not the key to career satisfaction. Experts say students should study what they love, knowing that they’ll also need to develop skills outside that chosen field.

“Parents and students should disconnect the one-to-one relationship between major and outcome. It’s about diving into competencies,” says Ben Anderson, former director of employer development at the LSA Opportunity Hub at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Anthropology majors, for example, develop cultural understanding and how to navigate within a community in a respectful and strategic way – all skills valuable to sales, marketing and operations careers.

“We talk to employers who look at their high performers and notice a significant number of individuals at managing director level come from liberal arts, and not just a bachelor of business pathway,” Anderson says. Their competencies are a mix of economics, sociology and political science, so they understand the big picture.

In an increasingly data-driven world, however, everyone will need to tap into their analytical side, says Kerin McQuaid-Borland, former director of the University Career Center at University of Michigan.

“My advice usually is that you can choose the major that you really love, and that is what you should do, because that’s why you are coming to school,” says McQuaid-Borland.

“That said, students have to understand that there are skill sets that are important in the work world – including problem solving, analytics and working with data — that will be critical.”

Connecting with your school’s career center is smart. But don’t wait!

Historically, the college career center was the last stop before graduation. Today, it’s the place to visit almost immediately — because it’s where students will learn the value of skill development.

Here, they’ll connect to projects, organizations and internships where they can thrive. All of this is critical to success and happiness in the workplace of the future, McQuaid-Borland says.

“It’s not necessarily about picking the best major. Employers will look for a multi-dimensional package showing a student has tested their skills in different types of environments,” she says. She also points to something called “planned happenstance,” a theory pioneered by career expert John Krumboltz, who, for a time, taught educational psychology at Michigan State University.


“Have things in mind you are working toward, but be open to opportunities that present themselves,” she explains. “They will open your eyes to reconsidering your original path, and you can’t shut them off. Open your eyes.”

Your future is closer than a bachelor’s degree away

Jumping into a four-year university degree is an expensive experiment for the truly undecided.

Here in Michigan, STEM-related degrees can provide a path to employment in southeast Michigan, in industries such as automotive or energy.

“Mechanical engineering, IT, computer science, software development are all skills that help students be hugely successful to southeast Michigan businesses,” says Sarah Sebaly, formerly Workforce Intelligence Network‘s youth strategy director.

“I encourage parents to listen to students who are excited about something, even if it requires a different path from what they expected. Parents feel a four-year degree is the only measure that will guarantee success, and that’s no longer true in our job market.”

With regional emphasis on connected and autonomous vehicle innovation, parents who worry about the automotive industry workplace of the future do so unnecessarily.

“IT is changing as it converges with the automobile, mobility and transportation sectors,” says Dr. Kimberly Hurns, former vice president for instruction at Washtenaw Community College.

“IT is viral in nature in that it seeps into other fields. Automotive, programming, even audio/visual are all so much more technical. In advanced manufacturing, IT brings an infusion of technology.”

Buzzword: agility. What does it mean?

Marketable skills can be applied across a variety of industries. As a job, digital game design, for example, doesn’t pay well at entry level, but pivot those skills to another industry and boom! Better pay.

“The skills game designers have are on par with our best computer science majors, and when they realize these skills translate into other well-paying careers, they will opt into that better-paying career but continue to pursue game design as a creative outlet,” says Peg Pierce, director of career services at Lawrence Technological University.

Agility is key to building and maintaining relevance in the workplace of the future, and those with lifelong curiosity will roll with the ever-evolving work climate.

“We are making sure individuals are agile enough that they can make those pivots when they see something in their organization or department that is changing the way work is being considered and problems are being solved,” says U-M’s McQuaid Borland.

Where you start isn’t necessarily where you’ll finish.

Parents eager to declare their student’s major on senior grad party invitations may want to save the ink.

Nationally, about 30 percent of bachelor and associate students – both STEM and non-STEM – change their major at least once within three years of enrollment, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

“From a tech standpoint, we can talk about top 10 careers, but the reality is you need to do what you want to do and what you love to do. The trick is making sure as we grow up, we are exposed to and can explore various aspects of work out there, and not be pigeon-holed into certain careers,” says Pierce from LTU, adding that the “top 10” change every year.

In short, the choice of major should belong solely to the student, even if it causes parents discomfort.

“Engineers can make $50,000 to $60,000 a year, and that’s typically what people want to see their kids do. I get it. But we have a lot of people who have careers and they hate them,” says John Ambrose, executive director of admissions at Michigan State University.

“The other reality is students will graduate with a degree and then go on to have three or four different careers.”

And that’s a good thing, given the amount of time young people have to dedicate to their careers and striving toward that workplace of the future.

“It’s a reality that students in school today will be working into their later 70s, based on life expectancies. So if you approach a 22-year-old and say, ‘Are you ready to sign up? This is what you will be doing for 58 years.’ It’s not so attractive,” says McQuaid Borland.

Looking at the world of work through this lens, it’s not surprising students want to take their time, explore and enjoy life – if given the chance.

You are the guarantee.

Students who take full advantage of what their education offers to develop the core competencies employers seek – and can articulate them clearly – will have the broadest career choices.

“It comes down to how hungry they are for knowledge and inquiry, and whether they are doing assessments of themselves,” says Ambrose. “Students should push themselves more on self-analysis.”

At U-M’s LSA Opportunity Hub, they call this “getting to your why.”

“Students at Michigan don’t need support finding great jobs,” says Anderson. “They need help getting the initial nudge to talk about how their anthropology degree will make a huge difference within sales. We help them get ready to talk about their why.”

Resources and opportunities exist everywhere, but they’re not impactful if students don’t take advantage of them, says Ambrose.

“This is the place where you get to practice being grown up, and that’s different for everyone,” he says. “We remind students that if they come to college they will have to sit in class, listen to lectures and write papers.

“But when they are not studying, that’s the time they have the opportunity to explore themselves through student organizations where a good portion of the world is represented,” he adds.

“We tell them they can be whatever they want to be — but only if they put in the work, which will be hard and painful and require sacrifice.”

Content sponsored by Michigan Education Savings Program. Find more articles like this at Metro Parent’s Making Your Child’s College Dreams Come True.


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