Why a Liberal Arts Degree Is Just What Employers Want

“The flexibility of a liberal arts degree might actually be an unsung advantage.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • The five liberal arts skills that employers are looking for
  • How 40% of jobs get filled without a single job posting
  • Why your connections, not your résumé, will bring you the opportunities you need

George Anders is a contributing editor at Forbes magazine who spent two decades at the Wall Street Journal, where he shared a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He is also the author of You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education. He recently spoke with Heleo’s Assistant Editor, Jeremy Price, about why job-seeking English and philosophy majors can breathe a sigh of relief, because right now, a liberal arts degree may be the hottest ticket in town.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click the link below.

Jeremy: First of all, what is this book about?

George: I wrote this book because the college to career pathway seems broken. We have a tremendous pool of talented people who are picking up all the strengths of the liberal arts education, and we somehow lost the ability to slide that talent into the workforce. I go through what their assets are, what’s wrong with the current system, and how we can fix it.

Jeremy: Were you a liberal arts major yourself?

George: I was one of the great dilettantes at college. I ended up taking classes from 14 different departments before I went for a second helping of anything. If you look at my transcript, it’s everything from Slavic literature to the history of films to genetics. There’s just enough Econ in there to get an Econ degree, but it was really the history and the writing classes that stretched me for the career that I ended up choosing.

Jeremy: The trick is being able to convince a potential employer that it’s valuable, right?

George: It gets easier with time. The first employer is always the hard one, because they are looking for a tight set of skills, and then over time they start to appreciate all that creativity. If you can just get over that first speed bump, it all gets good.

“We think that more education gets you more stability—actually that’s not the case. More education gets you more mobility.”

Jeremy: Right now in universities, there’s this notion that the tech sector is really hot, and if you get a computer science degree, you’re good to go. [But] you point out that, “Of the 10.1 million net new jobs the United States has added since 2010, only 7% are in the computing sector.” And you go on to say that, “In fact, the fastest growing fields often turn out to be the ones indirectly catching the warmth of the tech revolution.” Could you riff off that a little bit? Are there any other good examples that come to mind?

George: If you look at what engineers create, so often you need people to come in and do the design, the marketing, the user experience, the business development. I was just visiting Amazon, and of course they have Alexa, which they are very excited about. [But] Alexa is not just a software creation, it’s an anthropological exercise as well. In fact, there is a whole Amazon personality team that consists of people who majored in creative writing, anthropology, and music, who try to figure out how to make this device fit into people’s homes and into people’s lives. You need a lot of non-technical talent to do that, and if you don’t do that right, you can have the fanciest software in the world and yet, it’s going to be clumsy and unappealing and ominous.

Someone is the Managing Editor for the Alexa personality, which I think is one of the great job titles.

Jeremy: Is that true?

George: I would like a Managing Editor for my personality too!

Jeremy: I love that.

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Another thing that you talk about is that after college, people have 12 different jobs [on average]. That was a totally new idea for me. How common is it to be jumping around to these different jobs? And what are the benefits of that for somebody with a liberal arts degree?

George: If you look at job mobility by level of education, people with some community college or a high school degree only, tend to move less. We think that more education gets you more stability—actually that’s not the case. More education gets you more mobility, and the ability to find new opportunities.

A lot of jobs have their peak period where everyone wants to hire you for [a particular] skill, and then ten years later, that’s fading and there’s something new. The nice thing about a broad, well-rounded college education is that you can switch from area to area. I’ve got stories in the book of people who started out doing non-profit advocacy and ended up doing web design or television news. That ability to take your curiosity and your intellect to different fields means you’re never in a position where they close the coal mine and you don’t know what to do.

[With] the level of automation right now, there are a lot of coal mines, metaphorically. I [had] an Uber driver one time who was a semiconductor design engineer, and he was telling me, “Here I am in my 40s. I know how to put all the resistors and transistors in the right place, but there’s a machine that does that now. They don’t need me anymore, and I’m driving a cab.” So yeah, he’s got a technical degree, but those jobs come and go. My argument in the book is, be prepared to move around, and start to think of mobility as a virtue.

Jeremy: Usually you think that the primary benefit of a technical [degree] is job security, but having the flexibility of a liberal arts degree might actually be an unsung advantage.

“That ability to balance what different elements of society want is not an engineering problem. It’s something that needs an eye for humanity.”

Speaking of which, what are the best, most marketable skills that liberal arts degree holders have?

George: It’s a really good question, and to get to the bottom of this, I did an analysis. I took a whole lot of job listings from Indeed.com, and I put two filters on it. I said, “I want to look only at jobs that ask for critical thinking,” which is the showcase term for liberal arts values. And, “I want to look at jobs that pay at least $100,000.” Then I read through listing after listing, and started to question, “Okay, what are we really asking for?” There are five things that get asked for.

It starts with curiosity and a willingness to take on the new. For a lot of people [with liberal arts degrees], we like going after the new, so that just seems like second nature. Actually, it isn’t. About two-thirds of people in the workforce just want to be told what to do, and just want to stay on the same thing. If you’re the kind of person who is comfortable stretching yourself and going into new areas, that’s actually really valuable for employers. I’ve talked with employers who’ve said, “Any time I have a new area that I don’t know how to build out, the first thing I do is look for a liberal arts major, because they’re comfortable with uncertainty and murkiness and making up the rules as they go along.” So that’s virtue number one.

The second one is really good analytical skills, whether it’s decoding a sonnet, or taking apart a fragment of ancient history, or looking at something that an archaeologist has unearthed. If you make it all the way through a liberal arts major and do the senior-caliber work, you’re going to be very good at those kind of analytical skills, and those are incredibly transferrable.

One of the stories I tell in the book is a Classics major who became known on Wall Street as the guy who reads every footnote. The same kind of skills that get you going through [Classics material] will get you going through the bond prospectus and discovering that thing on page 97 that no one else notices. You make money doing that. You actually make a really big amount of money doing that. So, that’s a liberal arts virtue that transfers surprisingly well.

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Moving beyond that, the ability to fit all the pieces together and find a solution, especially when you have a lot of unknowns and a lot of variables, and you’re trying to balance different priorities. That’s why most people in political careers [have] liberal arts degrees. That ability to balance what different elements of society want is not an engineering problem. It’s something that needs an eye for humanity.

To quickly cover the last two: an ability to read the room, which translates into empathy. “What do other people want, where are they headed?” And then, really good communication skills, and not just written communication, but spoken communication, too. The ability to get up in front of a group and inspire people. There’s something about the classic liberal arts seminar that gets you good at listening to other people’s perspectives, fitting them together.

Jeremy: If someone coming out of college [with a liberal arts degree] goes into a job interview, or is preparing a cover letter or résumé, what tips do you have for convincing the employer that these are skills that they need on their team?

George: We’re always told, “Get your résumé in great shape, send it out to a lot of people, look for job ads that describe what you want, and keep trying until you get one.” That’s actually not how a lot of jobs get filled. There’s University of Chicago research that says close to 40% of jobs get filled without any trace of a job ad. And you go, “Well, how did that happen?”

Jeremy: Yeah, how did that happen?

George: Usually it’s people talking their way into jobs. You meet someone at an airport, or at a restaurant. You tell them a little bit about who you are, they tell you what their business does, and the next thing you know, you’ve created a job out of scratch.

“You may open the door one millimeter at a time, but the doors do open.”

“Networking” is the standard word we use, but mostly it’s just hanging out with people you like and enjoy, who could be helpful to you down the road. Particularly recent alumni. Somebody who is a few years into the workforce can get you those interviews with a recommendation or referral, and that’s when you can show your personality and energy, and explore different ways you can help an organization. So, if the question is, “How does a liberal arts major get recognized by the workforce?” I would say the more you can do to build up personal connections and find people who will introduce you to opportunities, and the less you can sit there sending out “To Whom It May Concern” emails, the happier you’re going to be.

Jeremy: Looking back at your own experience, what advice would you give to yourself if you were about to graduate and head off into the big, bad, professional world?

George: “Don’t get discouraged.” You only need one job coming out of school, [but] you will have to knock on a lot of doors to get it. I was recently pulling out some old family papers, and I came across all these rejection letters. I completely forget that I even applied to these places, so your memory will heal, but that willingness to keep trying is important.

And remember that your energy and your optimism are a big part of what employers want. They have enough sullen folks who’ve been there for 20 years and hate Mondays. If you can figure a way to come in and be a person who’s full of energy, that’s a big asset.

In my case, I had the good fortune to apply to the Wall Street Journal when there was a sudden opening they hadn’t expected. They needed a replacement, and I was a very affordable hire. Boom, I had a job. [So] be willing to start almost anywhere for the first year. Do a bunch of project work, find small-time consulting opportunities. There will be luck, there will be serendipity along the way. You may open the door one millimeter at a time, but the doors do open.