“I Want To Be Employable”: From History to the Business World

Yesterday I mentioned the concern expressed by an advisee struggling with whether to continue with a History major: “I want to be employable.” My initial response to such statements is always to emphasize that college represents a unique opportunity to study a subject for which you’re passionate — an opportunity that may never again come. But my second response (and the theme of yesterday’s post) is that humanities majors like History do a terrific job of cultivating the kinds of skills (reading, writing, research, critical thinking) that help one continue to learn and adapt to a fast-changing economy (e.g., graduate and professional school, continuing education, job training).

More than that, those skills are highly valued by organizations from a wide variety of fields, all seeking nimble thinkers, problem-solvers, innovators, and communicators to fill their job openings.

John Fea of the Messiah College History Department recently posted a couple of pieces on this very phenomenon, both arguing that corporations are becoming less and less likely to hire Business majors and more and more eager to hire History majors and others with the kind of broad knowledge and advanced research, writing, and critical thinking skills associated with the liberal arts.

First, Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal reported:

Undergraduate business majors are a dime a dozen on many college campuses. But according to some, they may be worth even less.

More than 20% of U.S. undergraduates are business majors, nearly double the next most common major, social sciences and history.

The proportion has held relatively steady for the past 30 years, but now faculty members, school administrators and corporate recruiters are questioning the value of a business degree at the undergraduate level.

The biggest complaint: The undergraduate degrees focus too much on the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting and don’t develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses.

Companies say they need flexible thinkers with innovative ideas and a broad knowledge base derived from exposure to multiple disciplines. And while most recruiters don’t outright avoid business majors, companies in consulting, technology and even finance say they’re looking for candidates with a broader academic background….

Facebook Inc., a hot destination for many college graduates, doesn’t recruit based on a particular major. “It’s not about what you have or haven’t studied,” says Kristen Clemmer Meeks, a recruiting manager at the social-media company.

That squares with what Australian entrepreneur Tony Golsby-Smith wrote in the Harvard Business Review:

How many people in your organization are innovative thinkers who can help with your thorniest strategy problems? How many have a keen understanding of customer needs? How many understand what it takes to assure that employees are engaged at work?

If the answer is “not many,” welcome to the club. Business leaders around the world have told me that they despair of finding people who can help them solve wicked problems — or even get their heads around them. It’s not that firms don’t have smart people working with them. There are plenty of MBAs and even Ph.Ds in economics, chemistry, or computer science, in the corporate ranks. Intellectual wattage is not lacking. It’s the right intellectual wattage that’s hard to find. They simply don’t have enough people with the right backgrounds.

This is because our educational systems focus on teaching science and business students to control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data. It doesn’t teach how to navigate “what if” questions or unknown futures. As Amos Shapira, the CEO of Cellcom, the leading cell phone provider in Israel, put it: “The knowledge I use as CEO can be acquired in two weeks…The main thing a student needs to be taught is how to study and analyze things (including) history and philosophy.”

People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings, say, have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.

In particular, he stressed that those trained in the humanities thrive dealing with:

  1. Complexity and ambiguity: “Any great work of art — whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual — challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture. This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems.”
  2. Innovation: “If you want out-of-the-box thinking, you need to free up people’s inherent creativity. Humanists are trained to be creative and are uniquely adapted to leading creative teams.”
  3. Communication and presentation:“Liberal arts graduates are well-trained in writing and presenting, making them natural fits for marketing, training, and research. A focus on writing (which you need for degrees in history, literature, philosophy, and rhetoric) helps people develop persuasive arguments, and a background in performance (such as theater or music) gives people great presentation skills. And an understanding of history is indispensable if you want to understand the broader competitive arena and global markets.”
  4. Customer and employee satisfaction: in his mind, those trained in the liberal arts simply better trained to observe human behavior (and I’d add, empathize with others).

But as Fea pointed out in a series of posts this week (e.g., this one on “Rethinking Success: How Liberal Arts Students Get Jobs“), those majoring in History and other humanities fields need to learn how to explain these advantages in cover letters, resumes, and job interviews (and advisors and career counselors need to help with this).

So if you’re a History major worried about employability, start talking about these strategies with your advisor, other professors, and the specialists in Bethel’s Office of Career Services (as of June 1, Office of Career Development and Calling). And don’t ignore the corporate sector when it comes time to look for internships and jobs. According to our most recent survey, 30% of our alumni (more than any other sector) work in business fields like marketing, sales, human resources, accounting, and management.

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