The revenge of the liberal arts degree

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In the past ten – arguably twenty – years, there’s been a growing trend towards downplaying the applicability of a liberal arts degree in the world of work.

Changes in our understanding of the economy have led employers to doubt the transferability of this type of education, marring its value and that of the students working hard to earn it. Today, it’s not uncommon for those pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree to receive parental grief or to be mocked by friends in programs deemed ‘more competitive.’

But recent studies have shown that the skills most often needed in order to be successful in a variety of fields, including the nonprofit sector, are the same skills needed to succeed in a liberal arts degree. Made ever more relevant by today’s gouged economies and increasing student debt, this raises one crucial question: Is a Bachelor of Arts degree still a worthy pursuit?

Thinking critically and working together

According to the latest polls, all signs point to yes. But – perhaps due to years of degradation and belittlement – arts students are struggling to see what their degree brings to the table, and lack confidence when it comes to identifying their value to employers.

“If you go to university, the idea is to mold your capacity to think,” says CanadaHelps CEO, Owen Charters. “It’s not to cram more information into your head so you can go into the workforce and spill it back out, but to become someone who can actually think critically and analytically.”

And this is what arts degrees do best, he says.

As new technologies continue to propel our lives and economies forward at a pace employers can only hope to keep up with, those able to adjust to change and continue to work effectively will be of most value. This ability to learn and adapt quickly – skills developed writing papers, working on group projects, or preparing for class presentations – is developed and refined in arts programs. And though the types of tasks and the ways they’re performed today are likely to change dramatically in the next five years, the ability to work with others and to convey information in an articulate and concise manner will continue to be essential.

“The number one skill that employers are looking for are communication skills,” said Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding, a company that recently surveyed 225 employers in the US using Experience Inc.’s data pool of 100,000 companies.

It found that 30% of employers are recruiting graduates with liberal arts majors, a number slightly smaller than the 34% recruiting engineering and computer information systems majors, but nearly double the 18% hiring graduates with finance and accounting majors combined.

In the same survey, almost every employer ranked communications skills as "very important" when hiring for entry-level positions. Another 97% and 92% ranked positive attitude and teamwork skills, respectively, to be "very important."

“Of all the things employers look for when hiring entry-level talent, it’s the so-called ‘soft skills’ that are valued most,” says Jennifer Floren, founder and CEO of Experience, Inc. “Employers understand that everything else can be taught, so they look for the most promising raw material to work with.”

Charters, who himself received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language and Literature before pursuing his MBA, says nonprofits, in particular, should be hiring arts graduates.

“It’s called the arts and humanities for a reason,” he says, referring to the full title often given to these programs.

That is, after all, precisely what the nonprofit sector is about: humanity. According to Charters, it’s about understanding the human condition, and using this knowledge to communicate and tell a story.

“It’s about relating to someone else’s situation, putting it into context, and understanding how to communicate to that person to get them to follow along, building empathy and sympathy,” he says. “Those are really important skills that come out of an arts and humanities degree, and sadly, I’m not seeing any of that at all with science and engineering programs.”

But this is not to say an arts degree alone provides you with everything you need to work in the nonprofit sector.

Hands-on experience is a must

Reza Mashkoori, who now works as a senior youth worker for the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, says his Bachelor of Arts degree didn’t prepare him for the hands-on aspect of working with youth and families. For this kind of experience, he volunteered as much as possible, something he says every undergraduate student should do.

Seeking out internships is another way to go about this. According to the Millennial Branding study, most employers are looking for this hands-on experience when hiring. Ninety-one percent companies surveyed think students should have between one and two internships before graduating, and 87% feel these internships should last at least three months.

Jeremy Tuff, another former arts student who now works as a development coordinator for the Calgary Food Bank, says he wishes he had more exposure to statistics in school, since charities and nonprofits tend to value this kind of business knowledge.

Though Charters says getting his masters degree in business did help him fast track into management positions in the sector, it was his arts degree that taught him how to think critically, a skill he now looks for when recruiting new staff.

“I want people who don’t take everything at face value,” he says. “I want people who question, people who think of other options and alternatives. Those are the people I want to hire, those are the people I want to work with, and those are the people I think are going to be the innovators and the creators going forward.”

Finding confidence in yourself

Yet, there is still a widespread trend towards devaluing the liberal arts and the people who graduate from these programs.

Students pursuing Bachelor of Arts degrees develop a unique set of skills proven to be of utmost value to employers, but continue to struggle to promote themselves with confidence. They fail to recognize that an education in arts and humanities, paired with a few internships or even some volunteering in the field, is an ideal background for many positions in the nonprofit sector.

Tuff says students should not only feel confident identifying their value to employers, but start seeking out opportunities based on what interests them most.

“Instead of looking at online job postings and asking what you can do based on what they’re saying is out there, you should be asking yourself what you would really like to do, and start looking for jobs that way,” he says.

The deep-rooted misperception that a liberal arts degree isn’t applicable to the world of work needs to be turned on its head, a change that has to start at the bottom. Students and recent graduates must start to realize and embrace the skills they’ve worked so hard to earn, and move forward with confidence as they seek jobs in the nonprofit sector, or any other field.

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series that explores how you can apply your undergraduate degree in the pursuit of a career in the nonprofit sector. In the coming weeks we’ll also look at how degrees in marketing/communications, pure sciences, business and even engineering can help you find your way to work in a nonprofit.

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