The Future of Business?
The nature of jobs is changing, and individuals with soft skills like adaptability and communication are likely to have an advantage in the workforce in the next decade because of their ability to problem-solve.
WRITTEN BY KATLIN SWISHER
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN NUEVO
David Kalt, founder of Reverb, realized that while he has spent the last 10 years doing just that — recruiting the best programmers for his company — his experience with employees has shown otherwise.
“Looking back at the tech teams that I’ve built at my companies, it’s evident that individuals with liberal arts degrees are by far the sharpest, best-performing software developers and technology leaders,” Kalt wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Often these modern techies have degrees in philosophy, history and music — even political science, which was my degree.”
Leaders in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia University say these shifts in the job market affect their teaching and how they are preparing students for diverse career paths.
“Critical thinking and analysis lies at the heart of the liberal arts. Students are given the time in class to think deeply and ask questions (which is, arguably, the purpose of university), develop oral and written communication skills, research intensively and synthesize large amounts of information,” said Kate Staples, associate chair and associate professor in the Department of History. “These skills are helpful as they approach the workforce where they might shift careers frequently in their lifetimes.”
This adaptability enabled WVU alumnus David Bem (BA Chemistry, 1990) to nimbly navigate his career to his current role as the chief technology officer and vice president of PPG Industries, a Fortune 500 company that is a global supplier of paints, coatings, fiberglass and other specialty building materials.
“The liberal arts teach you to learn. The pace of change is fast enough that to succeed, you must be able to learn,” Bem said. “When I graduated, nobody envisioned smart phones, social networks or autonomous vehicles. Today we see amazing advances and creativity. Innovation comes from the truly creative minds who find new ways to use technology. Innovation will be driven by those people and organizations that can out-create their competitors.”
A valuable difference in liberal arts degrees versus STEM degrees is that emphasis on learning process over content.
“(Students) need to find a way to market themselves and the abilities they have. They are good at writing and articulating their thoughts. They just have to learn how to advertise those skills and isolate exactly what they have to offer and get that point across to potential employers.”
- Matthew Talbert
“Critical thinking is what we do in a formal way and in an informal way. That’s what I want students to learn more than facts about Plato or Aristotle,” said Matthew Talbert, chair of the Department of Philosophy. “I’m teaching them how to think clearly and with a high degree of precision and to be able to do that when they are communicating orally, when they are writing and when they are reading really dense material to be able to analyze it effectively. We have a talent for that and focus on it in ways that other disciplines don’t.”
This focus on process innately makes liberal arts programs more difficult to market, particularly in terms of job opportunities and other outcomes.
To help offset this marketing challenge, the Department of English offers programs such as its professional writing and editing concentration that require an internship as well as other applied courses, all while keeping a foundation in the liberal arts.
“Even with the additional areas of emphasis and minors available, the study of literature remains the core of the Department of English,” said Doug Phillips, teaching assistant professor and advising specialist. “Helping students learn how to read and interpret texts, and by extension what it means to be human, lays the foundation for everything else the department prepares students to do, whether that’s writing poems or investigating how ideas about health and medicine are influenced by more than pure science.”
The inclusion of cultural studies is another significant change in humanities instruction. Broadening the approach to the liberal arts curriculum with cultural studies has changed how these leaders think about process-based instruction.
“We encourage our students to go, see and do through internship placements and study abroad. That way, they are integrating the language skill set, the cultural understanding and so on. Having that world experience is really important,” said Clarissa Estep, director of the International Studies program. “Especially in hot topic classes where there can be contentious debates, I also try to teach evidence over emotion. Support your arguments, explain why you feel the way you feel.”
These soft skills often define what makes a successful leader.
“In the purest sense, the ability to follow an argument from beginning to end is fundamental to leadership. You just can’t manage without that,” Talbert said. “Nobody teaches that better than philosophy. It’s a skill — there are steps that you can actually learn and repeat over again.”
Denise Conroy (BA Political Science, 1993) acknowledges this value in her own approach to management. Currently president and CEO of Iconic Group, Inc., a $100 million digital solutions company, she has used her political science background to hone her leadership skills for years in management at the Outdoor Channel, HGTV and the DIY Network.
“Critical and analytical thinking has gotten me where I am today. There’s no problem I can’t solve, and I enjoy the learning and fact-finding that’s inherent in problem-solving,” Conroy said. “Another core skill that I’ve developed is diplomacy. That embodies strategy and communication and is critical to any business negotiation. Finally, listening is an absolutely critical skill that I’ve developed. It applies to every interaction from customers to employees. If we’d all talk less and listen more, the world would be a much more thoughtful place.”
That ability to listen and empathize is a frequently forgotten value of the humanities.
“Within the history discipline, students also learn historical empathy and rich content that helps them become informed and engaged citizens. This contextual awareness of past humans and the tangible and intangible structures they created to order their worlds helps students understand challenges in the present day,” Staples said. “The empathy and depth of analysis students learn is applicable in a variety of careers in which they interact with and lead others: administration, management, sales, government and technology.”
Recognizing the humanistic value of studying the liberal arts and the ability to relate to others is often seen when studying different languages.
“One of the most interesting realizations students have when learning a second language is the deeper understanding they gain of their own language,” said Ángel Tuninetti, chair of the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics. “It’s also interesting to see the reaction of the students when they reach the point of realizing where their language dictates how they see the world, such as when they discover words in another language that represent a reality for which they don’t have a word in their first language.”
A challenge these leaders recognize for students, particularly when 75 percent of college students enroll as undecided, is matching their interests and skills to majors and majors to career paths. Talbert hopes to channel clearer communication with prospective students about their options by educating their school counselors.
“Very few students come to campus planning to major in philosophy. They have no idea what it is. At best, they confuse it with psychology,” Talbert said. “If philosophy was part of the K-12 education, I think things would be different for us. I am writing letters to guidance counselors to inform them of what philosophy is and what it can do for students in terms of improving their LSAT scores, etc.”
That challenge of choosing a major isn’t helped by the familiar lament, “What are you going to do with a major in [English/history/international studies/philosophy]?” However, Talbert encourages students to use these soft skills to better market themselves.
“They need to find a way to market themselves and the abilities they have,” Talbert said. “They are good at writing and articulating their thoughts. They just have to learn how to advertise those skills and isolate exactly what they have to offer and get that point across to potential employers.”
The soft skills developed by studying the liberal arts helped alumnus and WVU Hall of Famer Grant Wiley (BRBA, 2002) narrow his career path.
“Shortly after the last sip of coffee I had with the Minnesota Vikings, it was time for me to thrust myself into the fire called ‘the real world,’” said Wiley, chief of culture for VEEPIO, a technology company partnered with WVU Research Corporation. “I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew I developed a skill set from my communications classes at WVU and life contemplations at Coopers Rock.”
He teamed up with fellow Mountaineers Jonathan Ohliger (BA Sociology and Anthropology, 2000) and Najee Goode to establish VEEPIO. VEEPIO created a software developer kit that enables mobile applications a seamless transition from interactive pictures and videos to an e-commerce experience.
“Our story alone reflects the exact sentiments. One aspect is the foundation of being multidisciplined. Playing college football is a job and going to class is another job. [So is] working with all of the different characters on the football team and then developing relationships with our classmates off of the field while maintaining eligibility to then create an opportunity for ourselves to play professionally,” Wiley said. “In order to build consistent value in any organization, continued learning and being multidisciplined in the liberal arts is increasingly valuable.”
Decisions now to study a liberal arts major may look like an economic sacrifice in the short-term, but five or 10 years into a career may prove otherwise. A 2015 report on the economic value of college majors from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce explains that the median wage for liberal arts undergraduate degrees is $52,000, not far off from the average of all bachelor’s degrees, at $61,000.
Conroy encourages liberal arts students to think outside the box as they plan for the future.
“If they end up with a career in politics or public administration right out of the gate, that’s great,” Conroy said. “But, the broader liberal arts curriculum embodies so many valuable subjects and skills. They should be open to the possibilities and not limit their opportunities.”
Percent change in liberal arts graduates employed full-time, from Class of 2014 to Class of 2015
Visual and Performing Arts: -2.3%
Percent change in liberal arts graduates’ average full-time salary, from Class of 2014 to Class of 2015
- Visual and Performing Arts: 13.6%
Oral and written
- Critical thinking
Source: Class of 2015 First-Destination Survey, National Association of Colleges and Employers.