Why You Should Hire Liberal Arts Graduates

December 3, 2015

 

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Liberal arts majors may not have technical degrees. But often, they have a strong work ethic, great communications skills & other traits research shows lead to success in the workplace.

The scene: An unemployment office in Ancient Rome. A line of downcast men, dressed in togas and sandals, are lined up outside of the window to receive their unemployment pay.

–“Occupation?” barks the clerk to the first man in the window.

–“Gladiator.”

–“Did you kill anybody this week?”

–(Gladiator shakes his head ‘no.)

–“Did you try to kill anybody this week.”

–“Yes, I did.”

–“Listen, this is your last week of unemployment insurance. Either you kill somebody next week or I’m gonna have to change your status. Next!”

Up comes Mel Brooks.

“Occupation?”

“Stand-up philosopher!”

“What?”

“A stand-up philosopher! I coalesce the vapor of human existence into a viable and logical comprehension.”

“Ohhhh. A bulls***t artist!”

Why hire a liberal arts grad?

That, of course, was a scene from the Mel Brooks comedy classic History of the World Part I, starring Brooks himself and the late Bea Arthur.

Liberal arts and humanities majors – many of whom are working in the human relations/personnel fields now – are undergoing a crisis of confidence. Yes, we all value the study of history, literature, art, music and thought. We’re all glad somebody’s doing it, as these people certainly contribute to our quality of life.

But do liberal arts and humanities backgrounds actually add value to employers? Are they worth hiring? Or should corporations stick to hiring people with STEM degrees and technical and trade skills like welding?

Things are getting tight for the recent liberal arts graduate: According to a survey last year from Boston firm Millennial Branding, 64 percent of hiring managers surveyed reported that they would consider hiring an individual who had never set foot on a college campus. But only 2 percent reported they were actively looking to hire anyone with a liberal arts degree.

If this is at all accurate, young people can be forgiven for wondering if rather than pursuing a liberal arts degree, they would have been better off not going to college and incurring an average of $30,000 in debt (not to mention any tuition and expenses already paid and the opportunity cost of spending four years out of the full-time work-force).

But the absence of skilled liberal arts and humanities majors would surely come at a heavy price for most firms. And here’s the good news for employers: With liberal arts graduates out of style, you can get a great deal on good, hard-working employees.

Here’s why:

Tech skills are perishable. Technology is constantly changing. While almost all businesses need skilled technicians, those technicians have a way of leaving, or becoming obsolete – when technology marches on. Liberal arts doesn’t provide much in the way of current technical skills by itself, in most cases. But the disciplines put a great deal of emphasis on learning how to learn, on critical thinking, and on sound decision-making within the western ethical context. And that never goes out of style.

You may be hiring entry-level employees, and only a few of them may be liberal arts majors. But chances are excellent that your future leaders – those who will be with the business for a long time, and who will be stores of institutional memory, mainstays of client and vendor relations, and faithful workers through a series of technology and market cycles that will cause many of your more mercenary technology majors to get hired away. Your liberal arts and humanities majors can help provide ballast and continuity to businesses buffeted by technological and economic winds.

Good writing is vital. Face it: There are a lot of CEOs and other C-suite and VP level people at firms you need to market to and work with who are themselves liberal arts and humanities graduates. Your correspondence to them must be coherent, focused and professional. You can get away with being a bad writer in an engineering or computer science program. Companies are hiring loads of HB1 visa techies who don’t speak American English well at all. But somebody has to be able to write your correspondence, review your contracts, oversee your printed materials and communicate with the press.

That’s where your liberal arts folks can shine – and allow you to keep your technicians focused on product development and execution.

Liberal Arts Majors Are Forced to Become Communicators.

Much of the focus of good liberal arts programs is in the art of persuasion – often through the study and practice of expository writing. But not only from writing: Many liberal arts majors are skilled and experienced at a young age in persuasion, communication, debate and rhetoric. They thrive on it. These skill sets are golden when it comes to marketing and communication – not just externally but internally as well. Liberal arts and humanities majors can be worth their weight in gold when it comes to facilitating communication within the company.

What Can A Violin Performance Major Bring to the Job?

As a practical thought exercise, think of a drama major or music performance major. That young violin performance major applying for your administrative opening not be the next Jascha Heifetz or Itzhak Perlman or Hilary Hahn. She’s not world-class soloist material, but only a handful of players of every generation are. A generation ago she may have been competitive for orchestra jobs that just don’t exist anymore, so here she wanting to start her career with your company.

With a degree in violin performance, she will have already prepared a number of challenging musical pieces – working on them for hours in private, with nothing but her own violin and work ethic. She has performed them in dozens of settings in front of very critical audiences. She has probably prepared several recitals, in which she herself is the featured performer.

Think she’s experienced stage fright and nervousness? She has – and has come through. The music performance degree can be a pressure cooker.

She’s also seen a number of great orchestral and ensemble leaders at work – and a few bad ones. She has probably had some great leaders model leadership behavior for her, and possibly has had the chance to lead ensembles herself.

She may never pick up a violin in your workplace. But you can be sure those qualities that enabled her to function as a successful violin performance major carry through to a wide variety of workplace tasks.

You can also be sure that she knows how to study and work hard and learn new things. After all, she already taught herself how to play the violin!

They Understand Beauty.

Well, some of them do, anyway. Engineers left to their own devices have come up with a lot of ugly, unmarketable duds over the years. But take it from Steve Jobs. Everybody knows he dropped out of Reed College before launching what became among the most valuable companies in the world. But few know that he was a devoted student of calligraphy and typefaces, and continued to show up and audit those classes even after formally dropping out of school. Jobs famously said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough…It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”