Getting Past the Lazy Debate

There's an easy answer to the question of whether students should pursue liberal arts or more vocational majors, argues Matthew Sigelman, and it will allow liberal arts graduates to virtually double their current employability.

February 8, 2016

Policy makers, politicians and the general public have been doing a lot of hand-wringing over the idea that liberal arts programs are fatally out of touch with the job market. But, in fact, liberal arts majors are not as badly prepared as people fear -- and graduates with other majors may be less prepared than they believe.

It is true that recent liberal arts graduates have consistently had a higher unemployment rate than other bachelor's degree holders: 8.4 percent compared to 7.5 percent for college graduates overall, according to a 2015 study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Yet the core skills that liberal arts students acquire have never been more relevant to the job market. And those students can, in fact, virtually double their current employability with relatively little additional effort.

Job postings provide a view of the skills employers value most -- and of those that have been hardest for businesses to find. Across the full spectrum of jobs, what employers seem to call for, above all else, are foundational skills like writing, research, analysis, critical thinking and creativity. An analysis of job ads by my company, Burning Glass Technologies, which studies the job market, shows that fully one-third of all skill requirements listed are foundational -- even in technical fields like IT. And the data indicate that employers are coming up short when it comes to identifying people with these skills. The most consistent, cross-cutting skill shortage in the job market today is for one of the most basic abilities: writing.

Or consider this: across the labor market, many of the jobs that are both fastest growing and in highest demand are those that bring together different skill sets, like marketing and data analysis, or graphic design and programming. Such positions, which have grown by 53 percent over the last four years alone, are often hard to fill because technically oriented training programs tend to be tightly focused. By contrast, these “hybrid jobs” require people who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas.

Liberal arts graduates may not have direct training in those domains, but the liberal arts live within the core framework of interdisciplinary synthesis and critical evaluation. That’s a world apart from more technically oriented programs that dispatch their graduates into the workforce with a fixed portfolio of skills that, while marketable, may be of fleeting currency. In fact, even within a given occupation, the core work activities can evolve quickly, rendering a “practical” program obsolete. In the fast-growing field of data analysis, the entire skill set has shifted over just a three-year span away from pure statistical computation to place much more emphasis on visualization and business analysis.

Doubling the Open Positions

So why aren’t employers fighting over liberal arts graduates the way they compete for STEM majors? The problem is that, while employers need the capabilities students accrue in the humanities, they also expect their hires to have the specific technical skills to be productive from day one. That may seem like an unresolvable conflict, but arming students with both foundational and practical skills may be more feasible than one might think.

As things stand now, Burning Glass research shows that only one-quarter of all entry level jobs requesting a B.A., or roughly one million positions, are likely to be open to liberal arts graduates. They include positions like recruiters, administrative assistants, store managers, account representatives and others that may not measure up to the ambitions students or their families may have had for their college investment.

Now compare that with the options for a liberal arts graduate who has also acquired some specific technical skills, such as marketing, sales, business, social media, graphic design, data analysis or IT networking -- skills that can be picked up without a full degree. They can be learned in nondepartmental classes, a minor, an internship or a noncredit program outside of college.

With these skills, the number of jobs open to liberal arts majors nearly doubles, from 25 percent to 48 percent of entry-level bachelor’s positions. On top of that, the incremental jobs pay on average $6,000 more. Not only are more jobs available but also our research shows employers actually prefer the combination of broad knowledge and specific technical skills -- when they can get it. Even IT departments need people who can write.

Taken as a whole, this paints a picture of the liberal arts that doesn’t look at all like a discipline in crisis. Rather, it looks like a discipline that hasn’t acted on an easy solution.

The reason higher education hasn’t focused on that easy solution is because it’s been consumed by a lazy debate about whether students should pursue liberal arts or whether they should be channeled into more vocational majors. We end up arguing about the value of truth and beauty pitted against technology and commerce or about how closely educators and employers should work together. The subject is so prickly that some academics dismiss the argument that liberal arts graduates possess skills of value to the market as demeaning to the discipline.

Doubling the number of jobs open to liberal arts graduates would go a long way toward ending this lazy debate. They certainly do have value, and employers know it. It’s just that liberal arts have twice as much value when combined with some specific technical skills.

Seizing this opportunity, however, does mean that colleges have to relate to students in a different way. Fortunately, several practical strategies have emerged for making this transformation:

Give students a road map to a career. Most academic advising is focused on getting students the courses they need to graduate in their major. In some cases, such as pre-med, advising is built around getting into a graduate school. But rarely is it built around what students need to make successful transition from college to career.

For example, one of the most bankable skills in the workforce is also one of the most mundane: using spreadsheets, particularly Microsoft Excel. Even among high-skill jobs, a whopping 83 percent require knowledge of Excel. But how often do students majoring in programs like anthropology, English literature or political science hear this from their advisers?

The fact is most advisers are themselves academics, so expecting them to be able to dispense detailed career advice may be unrealistic. This is where technology can help. Career applications can tell students what kinds of jobs will be accessible to them and what skills they will need to get there, enabling them to pick courses on the periphery of their liberal arts degree that will give them the practical tools to achieve good career outcomes.

Far from threatening the liberal arts, such an approach empowers students to take intellectual risks. Studying anthropology or the classics may not seem so impractical when there’s a road map showing students what other courses will ensure their employability.

Package courses around skill sets. Higher education already thinks in these terms: concentrations, specializations, certificates and other ways of bundling course work together in a meaningful way. Such packaging can provide useful signposts for liberal arts students thinking about the future -- and for employers looking for relevant talent. And it’s a way for students to try out different fields to see if they fit. In many cases, the necessary courses already exist. It is only a question of pulling the threads together.

That requires a certain amount of interdepartmental cooperation, traditionally not the strong suit at many institutions. Want to go into human resources? The sociology department’s organizational theory course, plus the political science department’s survey research course, plus the history department’s industrial relations course, plus the economics department’s introductory stats course would be a compelling cluster. Here, too, starting with an awareness of demand -- which jobs represent compelling targets and which technical skill bundles do they require -- can be useful in ensuring that there is a governing logic to the catalog of certificates that the institution curates.

That also requires being open to new ways of packaging skills. To go back to our earlier example of a career signpost, everything from full-semester courses to one-day training sessions on spreadsheets is available. The right approach for a particular student is going to depend on the career she is likely to pursue and how the course offering is structured.

Remember that when students reach the job market, skills are everything. Departments that are technically or professionally oriented already know this. Just as college faculty members expect students to show up ready to learn, employers expect new hires to show up ready to work.

You can see this in employer postings for entry-level jobs and even internships, where companies are quite specific about the skills students need to even be considered. Perhaps it’s no surprise that internships in IT and related fields demand knowledge of SQL or C++. But even in fields like finance, communications and design -- the kinds of careers to which many liberal arts students aspire -- employers call for interns and fresh graduates to have specific knowledge of social media, particular accounting software, Adobe Creative Suite and the like.

Faculty members in career-oriented departments make sure to build those skills into their courses. It’s hard to imagine a student getting through a design program without knowing Photoshop. And while it’s unreasonable to expect that the history department will similarly align its instruction to the demands of the market, liberal arts programs owe it to their students at least to point them in the right directions.

The most striking thing about the employment challenge facing the liberal arts is that the solution lies so close within the academy’s grasp. Indeed, providing students with a career map that leads through the liberal arts can only strengthen their appeal.

How many business students would be majoring in humanities if they felt confident they could still have a career in business after graduation? This approach requires no major curricular overhaul, no fundamental change to how colleges teach the arts, humanities and social sciences. It should not be a distraction from the fundamental role of these fields: to explore the connections across knowledge and evaluate ideas critically.

The lazy debate between art and commerce, in the end, will advance neither one. If employers truly value skills like writing and critical thinking -- and the evidence clearly says they do -- then abandoning America’s liberal arts heritage will only make a skills gap worse. And if the liberal arts become a luxury item, pursued only by those willing to make a financial sacrifice, then their influence in the fabric of American intellectual life will wither as well. The good news is that this lazy debate can be ended. It just requires an acceptance that a fulfilling career is as much a part of a life well lived as broad knowledge for its own sake -- and a new approach to making both accessible for students.


Matthew Sigelman is chief executive officer of Burning Glass Technologies, which delivers job market analytics to empower employers, workers and educators to make data-driven decisions.


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