It’s apt that job-hunting season for college graduates and summer pool season coincide: both involve a splash of cold water. The lucky graduates already have jobs lined up, while others are still hunting for work. Some, at least, are going to experience “near-misses” when they are edged out at the last minute by someone slightly more qualified.

The last thing most graduates have on their minds is learning a new skill — and yet for many that’s the best route to locking down a job, both in the short term and throughout their career.

There’s an important point you should know about employers: They like diplomas, certainly, but they also think in terms of skills. Employers want to know you can walk in the door and get right to work. In fact, companies are even holding interns to that standard, becoming much more specific about what they want interns to know before coming on board.

The good news is that the average college graduate is actually in pretty good shape as far as skills go. And if graduates do fall short, there are some quick fixes out there. Our analysis of what employers ask for in job postings shows that colleges do, in fact, teach many of the skills employers say they need. With a little bit of tinkering around the edges, even graduates in programs that aren’t specifically vocational, like liberal arts, can be prepared for the marketplace. Here are three things to keep in mind:

Soft Skills Count

Our research supports the argument that the intangible qualities of a good education, like critical thinking, do in fact have value in the job market. One in three skills employers request in job postings is a soft or “foundational” skill. These include skills everyone might reasonably expect a college graduate to possess: writing, organizational and communication skills; problem-solving and planning skills; and the ability to plan ahead or to research a problem. Even in technology careers, one in four job postings requests such skills. While digital literacy is important in today’s economy, the ability to work in teams, problem-solve and think critically continue to reign supreme.

Mundane Skills Matter

High-end technology skills such as coding get most of the attention, but basic tech skills can still make a big difference . For example, nearly six in 10 college graduate jobs are in fields that call for Excel proficiency. The world runs on spreadsheets, and programs like Microsoft Excel have become a basic ticket to entry. In today’s workforce, even most middle-skill job opportunities require digital literacy. These positions are growing 2.5 times faster and pay 18 percent higher wages on average than jobs that don’t have a digital component.

Add Value to a Liberal Arts Education

All of this suggests that even the foundational skills developed in liberal arts programs have strong job market value. By offering a few additional “hard skills,” liberal arts colleges can make their graduates even more marketable to potential employers.

Consider this: roughly 25 percent of all entry level jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree are traditionally open to liberal arts graduates (about 950,000 job postings). And our review of job postings shows that by adding one or more of eight skill sets we identified, liberal arts majors can nearly double the entry-level jobs open to them (48 percent) and command a $6,000 salary premium. These job skill sets include marketing, graphic design, social media, sales, general business, data analysis and management, computer programming, and IT networking.

“But I’ve already graduated!” some may wail. That doesn’t mean it’s too late. A lot of the skills cited above can be learned in short-term courses, boot camps, or other nontraditional venues—and learned while you’re still actively job-hunting or working.

In an ideal world, education would be better aligned with what employers want, and students would already have learned exactly what they need to enter the workforce. A lot of people are working to build that world. But while it’s under construction, graduates can make sure they’ve got every edge possible.

Matthew Sigelman is CEO of Burning Glass Technologies.
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