Talent and the Liberal Arts

As the summer winds down and the school year looms, it is not just employers but also parents and college-age students who are thinking about the relationship between education and job training. While liberal arts degrees have long existed and at times been considered the best start for people working across sectors, harsh economic times, such as those following the 2009 market crash, tend to put the liberal arts degree under scrutiny. After all, does a degree in, let’s say, gender studies, philosophy or creative writing necessarily provide one with any job skills needed in today’s tech-focused and data-driven work world? It depends on who you ask. library

The Founder of Reverb.com Makes a Case for Hiring Coders with Liberal Arts Degrees

According to David Kalt, the founder and CEO of Reverb.com (an online marketplace for musical instruments and gear), liberal arts majors often make the best employees and even the best programmers. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Kalt–once a naysayer when it comes to the value of liberal arts degrees–observed:

It’s very simple. A well-­rounded liberal arts degree establishes a foundation of critical thinking. Critical thinkers can accomplish anything. Critical thinkers can master French, Ruby on Rails, Python or whatever future language comes their way. A critical thinker is a self­-learning machine that is not constrained by memorizing commands or syntax. Writing code can be just as stimulating as playing guitar or learning chess. Therefore, like musicians, many of the best programmers are self-­taught. They don’t write their first line of code in a classroom. Instead, they learn Ruby on a laptop while at Starbucks, just for fun. Most liberal arts degrees encourage a well-rounded curriculum that can give students exposure to programming alongside the humanities. Philosophy, literature, art, history and language give students a thorough understanding of how people document the human experience. Technology is a part of our human experience, not a replacement to it.

A growing number of employers and analysts now suggest that the neither/nor thinking that has governed the debate over the value of a liberal arts degree needs to be replaced with a more nuanced approach.  In a June 2016 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Matthew Sigelman, the chief executive at the job-market-analytics company Burning Glass Technologies, explained: “Employers really value soft skills that are the bedrock of a liberal-arts education…It’s not a matter of shutting down the classics department and turning it into a business degree.” But he adds, other skills, including hard technical skills, are also valued.

To discover what employers are searching for in job candidates, Burning Glass regularly data-mines three and a half million job advertisements a day. In this case, the company examined the wording of a year’s worth of job advertisements for entry-level positions where a B.A. is the basic requirement. Out of 955,000 job advertisements, Burning Glass discovered that many of these jobs could be “unlocked” if candidates just had one or more additional skills. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The company identified skills in eight fields, and then found an additional 863,000 entry-level jobs for graduates with skills in one or more of those fields. For example, the analysis found an additional 137,000 entry-level jobs for liberal-arts graduates who had data-analysis or management skills. It also found that such data-analysis jobs paid an average of $12,700 above the average salary for jobs traditionally open to liberal-arts graduates without such skills. Jobs for graduates with computer-programming skills paid nearly $18,000 more, and there were nearly 53,000 more of them.

The Take Away for Talent Managers

persondRecruiting great talent is never easy. What the ongoing debate about the value of a liberal arts versus engineering and computer science degree suggests, however, is that individual talent may ultimately matter much more than any specific degree. While there is no doubt that degrees in engineering and computer science from top-ranked schools, such as MIT and Stanford, will continue to hold great deal of currency on the job market, as suggested above, employers are also well advised to avoid discounting candidates with liberal arts degrees. Indeed, there appears to be growing evidence that liberal arts graduates who are motivated enough to acquire the additional skills needed to work as programmers or data analysts may be the job candidates who yield the highest ROI over time.

July 31, 2016   Updated :July 31, 2016      

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