I Have a Liberal Arts Degree, Now What?

As much as I want every young person to identify areas of career interest and explore those areas in high school, this doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with students choosing a liberal arts education in college; a liberal arts major can be a very good choice for pursuing a future career in one of many fields that rely on a broad set of communications, creative and critical thinking skills.  While America’s schools and colleges pursue a career pathways mindset, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater and diminish the value of liberal arts programs and majors.

But there is no doubt that among college graduates, liberal arts majors have the most difficulty in entering the employment market in jobs that recognize and value their high level of learning.  According to analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, liberal arts graduates have among the highest unemployment rates of all college graduates, approximately 9-10 percent vs. about 7 percent for all recent graduates in data from 2012.

There is some very good news, however.  A report by Burning Glass Technologies explores how, if liberal arts majors also gain some practical skills that are in demand by employers, the pool of available jobs for them expands dramatically.

You can access the report here: http://burning-glass.com/wp-content/uploads/BGTReportLiberalArts.pdf

Here are the basics.  There are approximately 950,000 job postings each year that would be open to the typical liberal arts graduate.  The 600,000 new liberal arts graduates each year also compete for jobs with other bachelor’s graduates, associate’s level graduates, workers who already have some job experience in the field, and other underemployed job seekers.  So, it’s a competitive job market.

But there are many more jobs that also ask for a specific skills set in addition to the communication and critical thinking skills that liberal arts programs develop.  Burning Glass did an analysis of posted jobs and identified the most common skills that would complement liberal arts skills, such as: Marketing, Sales, Business, Social Media, Graphic Design, Data Analysis, Computer Program and IT Networking.

When factoring in one or more of these skill sets, there are an additional 860,000 jobs, for a total of 1.8 million jobs for liberal arts majors could apply for if they also had some of the in-demand skills listed above. Most of these skills can be developed through a series of courses at the postsecondary level, or perhaps as a minor to a broad liberal arts degree.

What are the implications?  At the secondary school level, to address the wide array of student interests, it probably makes sense to offer a human services/arts and humanities pathway.  But as part of that pursuit, school leaders can emphasize to students that they should also seek to develop discreet, marketable skills, such as the ones listed in the Burning Glass report.  As part of the school’s pathways system, the students in the arts and humanities pathway could also take one or two classes from one of the other technical or business pathways in their school.

For postsecondary liberal arts colleges, I would suggest they resist the urge to circle the wagons and reflexively defend the inherent value of liberal arts programs, while resisting any practical changes to their programs.  Instead, I believe they could embrace career development for their students, helping them seriously explore the careers that liberal arts majors can pursue, and also gain more work and community-based experience while in college.  They can also counsel students to take some classes that will help them develop complementary discreet skills that will make them more marketable in the workplace.  Embracing a practical career orientation doesn’t diminish the value of the liberal arts at all.

America needs a workforce that is strong in all sorts of skills.  Some careers have a very strong emphasis on specific, expert technology, math and scientific knowledge and skills, but employers still value communication and critical thinking among those workers.  And other careers place a stronger emphasis of the communication and critical thinking, but workers still need to employ business and technology skills to be successful.  Let’s not play off liberal arts vs. technical skills as an either/or proposition.  The real workforce is more of a continuum between foundational skills and technical skills.  In that light, we welcome the liberal arts advocates as full partners in advancing America’s workforce.

Source: Burning Glass Technologies (2013). The Art Of Employment: How Liberal Arts Graduates Can Improve Their Labor Market Prospects, August 2013, Burning Glass Technologies, Boston, Massachusetts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *