Because of my experience as former CEO of the Seagram Corporation, young business students and aspiring entrepreneurs often seek my advice on the best way to navigate the complex and daunting world of business. As college students begin to think about selecting their majors, they may be influenced by the many reports coming out this time of year that tell them which majors provide the highest post-college earning potential. Last month, PayScale released its 2013-2014 report, lauding math, science and business courses as the most profitable college majors.
My advice, however, is simple, but well-considered: Get a liberal arts degree. In my experience, a liberal arts degree is the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future.
For all of the decisions young business leaders will be asked to make based on facts and figures, needs and wants, numbers and speculation, all of those choices will require one common skill: how to evaluate raw information, be it from people or a spreadsheet, and make reasoned and critical decisions. The ability to think clearly and critically -- to understand what people mean rather than what they say -- cannot be monetized, and in life should not be undervalued. In all the people who have worked for me over the years the ones who stood out the most were the people who were able to see beyond the facts and figures before them and understand what they mean in a larger context.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been a decline in liberal arts disciplines and a rise is pragmatically oriented majors. Simultaneously, there was a rise of employment by college graduates of 9 percent, as well as a decrease of employment by high school graduates of 9 percent. What this demonstrates, in my mind, is that the work place of the future requires specialized skills that will need not only educated minds, but adaptable ones.
That adaptability is where a liberal arts degree comes in. There is nothing that makes the mind more elastic and expandable than discovering how the world works. Developing and rewarding curiosity will be where innovation finds its future. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, attributed his company’s success in 2011 to being a place where “technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities … yields us the results that makes our heart sing.”
Is that reflected in our current thinking about education as looking at it as a return on investment? Chemistry for the non-scientist classes abound in universities, but why not poetry for business students? As our society becomes increasingly technologically focused and we build better, faster and more remarkable machines, where can technology not replicate human thinking? In being creative, nuanced and understanding of human needs, wants and desires. Think about the things you love most in your life and you will likely see you value them because of how they make you feel, think and understand the world around you.
That does not mean forsaking practical knowledge, or financial security, but in our haste to get everyone technically capable we will lose sight of creating well-rounded individuals who know how to do more than write computer programs.
We must push ourselves as a society to makes math and science education innovative and engaging, and to value teachers and education. In doing so, we will ensure that America continues to innovate and lead and provide more job and economic opportunities for everyone. We must remember, however, that what is seen as cutting-edge practical or technological knowledge at the moment is ever-evolving. What is seen as the most innovative thinking today will likely be seen as passé in ten years. Critical to remaining adaptable to those changes is to have developed a mind that has a life beyond work and to track the changes of human progress, by having learned how much we have changed in the past.
I also believe that business leaders ought to be doing more to encourage students to take a second look at the liberal arts degree. In order to move the conversation beyond rhetoric it is important that students see the merits of having a liberal arts degree, in both the hiring process and in the public statements of today’s business leaders.
In my own life, after studying history at Williams College and McGill University, I spent my entire career in business, and was fortunate to experience success. Essential to my success, however, was the fact that I was engaged in the larger world around me as a curious person who wanted to learn. I did not rely only on business perspectives. In fact, it was a drive to understand and enjoy life -- and be connected to something larger than myself in my love of reading, learning, and in my case, studying and learning about Judaism -- that allows me, at 84, to see my life as fully rounded.
Curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking -- which is developed in learning about the world around you, the ability to critically analyze situations, nurtured every time we encounter a new book, or encountering the abstract, that we deal with every time we encounter art, music or theater -- ensures future success more than any other quality. Learn, read, question, think. In developing the ability to exercise those traits, you will not only be successful in business, but in the business of life.
Edgar M. Bronfman was chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd. and is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life.
College graduates are the least happy segment of the work force today — according to a new Gallup survey, workers with high school diplomas, industry certificates, or technical degrees all report feeling higher levels of engagement within their careers. According to the survey, the difference is due not to dissimilar expectations of the workplace, but to the fact that college graduates are much less likely to feel that they are doing what they are best at.
Today, our society has a laserlike focus on preparing our students for college, and then graduating them to be participants in our economy. College students desire to be purposeful contributors in their workplace, and American employers are looking to hire job-ready college graduates. So why is there such disconnect between academic success and job satisfaction?
The problem is a simple lack of skills and professional self-awareness: the Gallup findings suggest that it is an issue of students not feeling qualified to do the work they are asked to do or understanding how skills learned in college apply to the workplace context. The solution may be an “XBA”- supplemental immersive training to provide students with a portfolio of business competencies and professional traits as well as a sense of direction founded in clear self-assessment. Skills, attitude, and sense of direction are all part of the equation, and critical to job engagement and success.
Understandably, college classrooms are about imparting knowledge and critical thinking to students, not teaching them how to do things and what it is they want to do. With increasing demands on employers, they no longer have time and resources to invest in on-the-job training.
So what can be done?
Higher education institutions are starting to realize they can partner with high-quality specialists in this area. They can solve this problem together.
First, we can help students develop the self-awareness to better understand what they are good at, and how those skills and knowledge apply to specific career choices. This mean helping students more clearly assess their own strengths and weaknesses. Gallup has repeatedly found that success and happiness at work come from doing what you like and what you are good at, so both are important. Someone who believes herself to be a strong writer, for example, may find that her communications ability can translate to developing compelling PowerPoint presentations to effectively meet the needs of a team better than if she tried to do spreadsheets or analysis all day, even though she should know how to do both.
XBA programs also prepare students to be more proactive and excited about driving their job search and finding the right fit, so they can use their career centers better, make better use of internship summers to hone their choices and better manage the interview process to convey what they know how to do and where they can make the best contribution.
This field is still emerging, but XBA programs like the Fullbridge Program (which I co-founded) simulate the work environment to provide undergraduate students and recent graduates intensive training to develop both skills — such as business analysis and research, strong written and oral communication, the ability to innovate and solve problems and work in teams -- and traits — like self-awareness, awareness of others, being forward-thinking, persistence, and a positive willingness to contribute.
Similarly, Dev Bootcamp is a nine-week immersion that gives recent graduates the hands-on experience they need to be successful computer programmers. The Shillington School also seeks to enhance a student’s formal education by enabling students to master industry skills in the field of graphic design. Think of this as the 21st-century innovation equivalent to the semester abroad, something that is considered an essential part of the college experience, but made available to students at all tiers of higher education and family income.
Here is the good news: This work is beginning to take shape. Top liberal arts colleges, research universities and community colleges are beginning to partner with these XBA partners. State leaders, employers, and higher education leaders are actively developing new ways to assure that community college and university students are graduating ready to contribute to the work force. President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan have emphasized the important role community colleges can play in preparing students for career success; and the Department of Labor is working with innovative higher education institutions that are providing skilled job training.
By adding practical skills and competencies to what students have learned in school, we can help young adults find greater happiness in their work, which is highly correlated with success, which in turn benefits us all.
Peter Olson is the former chairman and CEO of Random House Worldwide and co-founder of The Fullbridge Program.