Career Planning

Now (still) hiring: Job prospects for liberal arts majors

By Lucy Ewing

The new Mass Communications program at my university required a “cognate” in another department. Having studied Latin in high school, I worked out that I was expected to acquire knowledge of something other than how to write and produce a newscast.

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This led to an eclectic transcript (the result of criss-crossing miles of campus to the art, biology, math, English, theatre and law buildings) and eventual induction to Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest honor society for the liberal arts and sciences. I have always been proud to belong to this esteemed organization. When I flip through the Key Reporter newsletter I am regularly amazed by the intellectual prowess of members that include Nobel laureates, Supreme Court justices, and presidents.

And marketing analysts. For my (humble) part, I was hired by the world’s largest cable television operator. I never set foot in the business school as an undergrad, yet I could wear and work the uniform of pin stripes. My math and writing skills, along with the abilities to be creative and work well with people, allowed me a rapid rise.

So, you say, that was then, this is now. What are the job prospects for liberal arts majors today? Are they still employable? Can students allow themselves the “luxury” of this kind of education in the face of the 21st Century trinity of rising tuition, tighter hiring, and all things STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics)? Should parents support the decision to major in one of the liberal arts?

The answer, according to educational experts and employers, is a resounding yes.

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What subjects are taught in liberal arts degree programs?
• Humanities/Arts: Literature, history, philosophy, religion, world languages, music, fine art, theater, film and media studies, writing and rhetoric, classics, etc.
• Social Sciences: Psychology, sociology, political science, gender and cultural studies, anthropology, economics, etc.
• Science/Math: Astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, archaeology, zoology, geology, mathematics, statistics, etc.

A recent survey by the Association of American State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) revealed that more than 75% of employers recommend a liberal arts education for its flexibility, creativity, critical thinking and strong communications skills.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) defines liberal education as “an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”

Liberal arts programs readily develop core competencies that leaders in the high-tech work force most desire. Hundreds of interviews conducted by Tony Wagner, Expert In Residence at Harvard University’s new Innovation Lab, isolated the most desirable qualities in 21st Century employees, which I explore here.

Critical thinking and problem solving

A liberal arts education requires students to think deeply, not just in one discipline but across a wide range of subjects.  A student of liberal arts is exposed to historical and current issues in many relevant fields, and can bring that contextual understanding to the workplace.

Effective communicating

Liberal arts programs are grounded in writing and speaking. All those papers, seminar discussions, and shared critiques produce employees who are conversationally fluent and are able to persuade. Jared Polis, U.S. Representative from Colorado, says that writing is the number one skill required of recent college graduates hired for staffs on Capitol Hill, along with the ability to read and interpret text. Annmarie Neal, Vice President for Talent Management at Cisco Systems says, “The biggest skill people are missing is the ability to communicate: both written and oral presentations. It’s a huge problem for us.”

Working collaboratively

Smaller classes and seminars facilitate interpersonal skill development. This makes liberal arts graduates naturals for environments that require collaboration, which is the contemporary model in business, industry, and education.

Accessing and analyzing information

College and university libraries are hot spots for liberal arts majors, who are continually engaged in research and analysis, whether online or in the stacks. Their missions are daunting, and it takes perseverance to whittle down material to the essential purpose and make sense of it. This resourcefulness is a top requirement of employers who, according to Wagner, desire employees “who will just figure it out for themselves.”  Students in liberal arts programs also find one of their best resources in faculty who are available and committed to working with them and who model sound research strategies.

Curiosity and imagination

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Listen to an interview with Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University and author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Arts Education Matters.

Exposure to a variety of ideas across disciplines creates lifelong learners who are willing to grow in their positions and take their companies into uncharted territories. Imaginative thinkers are excited by change and challenge, not fearful of it.

Wagner’s wish list from employers also includes a sense of mission and personal accountability — and empathy. Liberal arts programs promote values of personal responsibility and citizenship. They cultivate learners who are compassionate and care about common causes, who are able to consider the ethical ramifications of decisions and actions as well as the technical.

My adventure in cable television and communications was a rewarding one, but the lure of liberal arts was too great. Ten years after my first degree, I returned to campus to earn a master’s degree in English and later became an elementary teacher, a position I hold today.

I teach as I learned, across disciplines and with a strong mission to develop creative, critical thinkers who can communicate. While my young students are learning technical skills at a hastened pace (the STEM emphasis again), they are also experiencing the pleasure of knowledge and learning to look at the world through many different lenses. John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself.” This is true. And it’s nice to know that a strong liberal arts education can still serve both purposes.

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