While six of the 10 fastest-growing occupations require an associate or bachelor’s degree, degrees alone do not guarantee a competitive edge.

“College students should not expect employers to hire ‘just anyone’ to fill a job,” cautions Marilyn Mackes, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, or NACE. “Employers are looking for candidates who have the right mix of skills and experience for the job; in a good job market, that can be tougher to find.”

John Challenger, chief executive officer of New York outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says companies have long coveted verbal and written communication skills, flexibility and interpersonal skills. Increasingly, however, it’s a resume that demonstrates a commitment to continuing education that separates the wheat from the chaff.

“In the technology field, for example, you’ve got to really be up-to-date and current to compete,” Challenger says. “Your education has to be continuous because that knowledge base is always growing. You have to build that into your career in a much more essential way than with other careers, where learning is done on the job.”

Bilingual candidates are also in demand.

“More U.S. companies are going global,” Challenger says. “They’re selling products worldwide and setting up operations overseas, so language skills and a familiarity with other cultures and international business customs are going to be very strong. First- and second-generation Americans will be in great demand.”

For new college graduates, internships are another important way to get their feet in the door. Employers who responded to the 2005 Job Outlook Survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey noted internships provide an easy way to “identify talent early.” On the scale of importance, most pushed its rating up a few notches to just below “extremely important.”

Finally, Challenger says an entrepreneurial spirit will get you everywhere in today’s job market. “Corporate America, more and more, is looking for people who will go out with initiative and really help them build their businesses,” he says. “Recognizing this, more business schools are actually building entrepreneurial programs into their curriculums.”

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