How to Make a Liberal Arts Degree a Career Asset
Dear Annie: I hate to sound like a “helicopter parent,” but I’m concerned about whether or not my daughter, who’s graduating in about a month from a prestigious college, is going to be employable. She’ll have a B.A. in English and a minor in communications, with a 3.8 grade point average. Her dad and I tried to persuade her to at least take some business courses, but nothing doing. She doesn’t seem worried about her future, and I know she’s had several job interviews that seemed promising, but realistically, what are the chances she’ll end up having to go to grad school to get a job? — Just Mom
Dear J.M.: I wonder if there’s ever been a mom or dad of a liberal arts major who didn’t worry about exactly the same thing. “My parents wanted me to pursue what made me happy, but they were concerned that I’d end up a ‘starving artist,’” recalls Emily Weiss, who graduated from Skidmore College in 2008 with a bachelor’s in fine arts.
In 2011, after a couple of years at online art dealer Artnet, Weiss moved to the New York City-based DeWitt Stern unit of giant insurance brokerage Risk Strategies Co. She has a pretty glamorous job, insuring valuable art for galleries, private collectors, artists, and museums all over the world.
Her story isn’t unusual. Lots of liberal arts majors even end up as CEOs, like history major Ken Chenault, head of American Express, or Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who majored in philosophy. “Go into any company, and you’ll find that people with degrees in English are working in marketing, as financial analysts, and in any other kind of job you can think of,” notes Bob LaBombard (college major: chemistry), CEO of GradStaff, a firm that recruits new grads for small and mid-sized employers. “Your major does not determine your career.”
So what does? Even at tech companies, “multidisciplinary thinking and collaboration are so important,” says Maria Elavumkal, head of talent in marketing and communications at IBM. “You need people with a broad set of skills and experiences, not just tech skills, to solve complex problems.” In interviews, she says, she looks for passion, intelligence, and integrity—not a major.
Marie Artim, vice president of talent acquisition at Enterprise Holdings, agrees. “The biggest challenge liberal arts majors face is thinking employers don’t want them,” she says. On the contrary: “Often their education has equipped them with the ‘soft’ skills we need, like communication, flexibility, persuasiveness, and relationship-building,” she says. Enterprise will hire about 9,000 grads this year for its management training program, many of them with liberal arts degrees.
Plenty of research supports the idea that STEM degrees, although they’re in big demand, are not the only horse in the race. Two recent employer surveys from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, for instance, show that four skills outrank technical knowledge and computer proficiency on employers’ wish lists: Critical thinking/problem-solving, work ethic, teamwork, and strong oral and written communications.
Not only that, but those “soft” skills matter more as people progress in their careers. Liberal arts majors reach leadership positions more often than people with technical degrees, according to a study of 15,000 executives in 18 countries. Ten years into their careers, the report says, humanities graduates are more often successful managers than any other major except business.
Still worried? Of course you are. So here are three practical suggestions you might pass along to your daughter (if she’ll listen).
First, says Artim at Enterprise, liberal arts grads—and in fact, everyone—should frame their experience in terms that highlight their strengths. “Participation in sports shows you can work well with a team, for example,” Artim says. “Volunteer work could have required empathy, customer service, and maybe leadership.” And don’t neglect to mention part-time jobs like waitperson, which call for multitasking, flexibility, and thinking on your feet.
As an English and communications major, especially with those high grades, your daughter should consider showing off her skills with a web site instead of a resume, suggests Elavumkal at IBM. “Show us your thinking, what challenges you took on, and what you learned,” she says. “Post plenty of writing samples.”
Employers, she adds, love to hire people who are passionate about solving a problem — and they’re not all STEM majors. One of her best recruits when she worked in IBM Design, she says, was “a theater major, who was a talented storyteller. So he was great at understanding what customers wanted and conveying the information back to the designers.”
Third, encourage your daughter to speak with people in as many different fields as she can, including your own friends and relatives, her professors, and anyone she might contact through LinkedIn. “Alumni associations can be really helpful, too,” says Artim. “Find out what past graduates with similar degrees are doing now, and how they got there.”
Many of those alums’ career paths are likely to be surprising. Emily Weiss, Class of 2008, urges your daughter to “keep an open mind. Don’t limit yourself, because there is a world of options out there. When I was in college, I knew nothing about the insurance business. It would never have crossed my mind. But now, I love it.
“At the end of the day,” she adds, “no matter what your major was, you learn on the job.”
Talkback: Is your current career related to what you studied in school? Leave a comment below.