College students earning a liberal arts degree can nearly double their job prospects - and boost their starting salaries to boot - by picking up a few technical skills before they graduate, a study suggests.
The analysis, based on a review of millions of entry-level job postings, offers hope for new graduates majoring in fields such as English, anthropology and philosophy, which have posted some of the highest unemployment rates for recent grads.
All they have to do is couple their liberal arts education with "a relatively small dose" of field-specific skills, the study says. Those skills fall into eight categories: marketing, sales, business, social media, graphic design, data analysis and management, computer programming, and information technology networking and support. Most can be acquired through internships, an academic minor or similar experiences, the study finds.
"With just a little bit greater awareness of what employers need, (students can) unlock a huge array of jobs that might not otherwise have been open to them," says Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass, a Boston-based labor market analytics company that works with colleges, employers and recruiters.
The study complements other research showing that employers first and foremost hire people who can communicate clearly, think critically and solve problems - all hallmarks of a traditional liberal arts education.
Even so, according to Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce, those majors by themselves were less likely to pay off in the job market. The overall unemployment rate for recent grads in 2010 and 2011 was 7.9%, the center found. Those fields with above-average unemployment rates included anthropology (12.6%), philosophy (9.5%) and English (9.8%). (Among noteworthy exceptions: drama and theater arts majors averaged 6.4%, while job hunters who majored in information systems averaged 14.7%.)
Burning Glass' analysis of about 4 million entry-level job openings listed from July 2012 through June 2013 finds that a new graduate with a liberal arts degree qualified for about 955,000 jobs, about 25% of those available. Liberal arts graduates with complementary technical skills in one or more of those eight categories could compete for an additional 862,000 jobs, most of them in fast-growing fields.
Average starting salaries were higher, too: $49,000 for liberal arts graduates with the extra training vs. $43,000 for those without.
The report also identified metro areas that are most promising for liberal arts grads just out of college. For example:
•Portland, Ore. is a particularly strong market for job-seekers with sales, marketing and jobs involving social media savvy.
•Dallas topped the list for employers seeking proficiency in data management.
•Boston and New York boasted the most job openings but also the stiffest competition.
•Atlanta, more than any other metro area, offered promising job prospects across the widest array of skills.
Colleges, especially liberal arts colleges, in recent years have focused on linking those skills to the workplace. Pomona College in California has added more staff to its career development office and "greatly increased" its summer internship options, president David Oxtoby noted in a campus update mailed this month to parents, alumni and other stakeholders. Students in the University of Connecticut's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences can earn a professional development certificate if they participate in alumni panel discussions and related career-oriented programs.
"Colleges are trying to be much more explicit in addressing (careers) from day one," says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, whose members include small private schools.
President Obama, too, views employment rates and salaries as useful measures of college quality. Last week, he proposed tying federal financial aid for colleges to student success, including whether new graduates are getting jobs and paying back their loans.
Follow Mary Beth Marklein @mbmarklein.