By demonstrating your skills you effectively make that which was theoretical into something real - Dr. Robert Englebert
I remember when I was an undergraduate student in the 1990s. It was the tail end of the Generation X movement, full of ripped jeans, plaid shirts, bad hairstyles, and depressing alt. rock music. Our parent's lamented the lack of initiative and enthusiasm that had defined their youth movement of the 1960s. This baby boom generation - the first to really experience universal university education - pushed us to attend university in record numbers and caused post-secondary institutions to grow at an alarming rate.
Driving much this university growth was the baffling presumption that all students who did reasonably well in school should go to university - an idea that remains prevalent in certain circles today. In fact, I distinctly remember a high school friend of mine who had quite the discussion with a school counselor because my friend wanted to go to college to become an auto mechanic and the counselor thought that he should go to university. But this blog entry isn't about university vs. college education. Many of my friends went to college and even more went to university, and they have all done well for themselves and found their own distinct paths.
However, that isn't to say that there was no difference. I noticed that my friends who went to college were trained specifically for a trade or profession and acquired those tangible industry-specific skills. On the other hand, those of us who received a liberal arts education were left wondering what we had achieved and how it was going to help us as we entered the working world. We were told that we had gained intangible skills – communication, critical thinking and analysis, etc. – but had no idea how these would help us after graduation. In other words, college grads knew what they were getting and how to apply it, and liberal arts grads didn't.
Reflecting on my own personal experiences and observations, I would like to shed some light on the longstanding debate over the usefulness of a liberal arts education and its relationship to the job market. What I suggest is that turning intangible skills into tangible skills allows liberal arts graduates to more fully demonstrate their training to prospective employers and helps in planning a career path.
It is significant to note that many of the current debates we hear and questions we face about the value of a liberal arts education have been around for the better part of thirty years. Back in the 1990s there were heated discussions about the usefulness of a liberal arts education and how these university graduates fared in the job market. At the time there were numerous studies that showed that companies preferred hiring liberal arts graduates who they could train to their own particular corporate culture. The argument was that liberal arts graduates obtained certain intangible skills – communication, research, abstract thinking and analysis, etc. - that gave them a leg up on the rest of the white-collar workforce. Later during the rise business programs, reports from companies like Google hit upon the inherent creativity of liberal arts grads as the overarching rationale for hiring them over graduates from other programs. Just this past year a report noted that while liberal arts grads endure a period of adjustment in the workforce they eventually ended up making as much if not more per year as post-secondary grads in other fields. Yet, there has been less discussion in the public sphere to explain the career success of those who earn a liberal arts degree. How do intangible skills and a penchant for creative thinking contribute to the career success of liberal arts graduates?
How to make what is intangible, tangible?
It is not that liberal arts grads obtain intangible skills and creative thinking and analysis while in school, but rather that they are able to make these skills tangible once they enter the workforce. It is this ability that leads to their success.
I propose this not only as a history professor who has spent more than fifteen years in a post-secondary environment, but also as someone who worked full time during part of my BA and took several years off to work in the "real world" between my BA and MA. I have worked abroad and in Canada, and done everything from banking, publishing, high finance and international sales, to customer service, manual labour, factory work, and serving tables. Each of these jobs forced me to show my skills – oral and written communication, active listening, critical thinking and analysis – so that employers could witness first hand my intangible skills. Consciously targeting, using and demonstrating intangible skills makes them tangible.
I came to realize that not everyone understands how to effectively demonstrate their intangible skills. For example, it is all well and good to talk about communication skills (writing, oral presentations, etc.), but it is incumbent upon a liberal arts graduate to demonstrate these skills. A well-written cover letter and a well-spoken interview display your skills. Moreover, concisely framing questions, answers and analysis in an interview or job setting lays plain the communications and critical thinking skills you have learned.
Another example of intangible skills is research and analysis. What do these actually look like in a workplace setting? One way is to attend an interview having effectively researched the company and the industry in which it is situated. By demonstrating your skills you effectively make that which was theoretical into something real. What I'm suggesting here is that one should work to avoid putting research as a skill on a C.V. and then muddle through the interview unprepared. Simply put, you have to show the skills that you tell a potential employer about and live up to the hype and expectations that you set up.
The value of intangible skills in figuring out your career path
One of the biggest concerns for liberal arts grads is that they have trouble figuring out what jobs they qualify for. The problem lies in the fact that a liberal arts education teaches thinking, communications, research, and analysis, but doesn't give you entrance into any specific field or prepare you for a particular job. However, using the skills obtained in a BA, MA or even PhD, one can work strategically to find a niche in the job market. Do you speak multiple languages? Sure there are customer service jobs available, but why not think about international business, where languages combined with communications skills can give you a leg up? Grad students in a discipline like history often read hundreds of pages per week and then have to dissect, compare and contrast, and analyze that information into concise and consumable notes, write-ups or reports. This skill is invaluable in the information age, with the overwhelming proliferation of data across numerous mediums. Government agencies and businesses alike are constantly seeking researchers and policy annalists with this exact skill. If your liberal arts education taught you to be an expert writer and specialize in editing texts then why not work as an editor? Editorial work is becoming more and more crucial because of the exponential growth of corporate online materials.
Thinking strategically about how best to position your liberal arts skills means exploring all possibilities. For graduate students this means looking for work beyond the university, in archives, museums, cultural institutions, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and businesses of all types. I am in no way suggesting that finding a job is easy or carving out a career using your liberal arts skills is a given. I know how hard it is. I've pounded the pavement, searched the papers and online listings, and felt the frustration of rejection. However, I have also seen how taking a strategic approach to a job and career search and making your intangible skills tangible can work. As they say, "the proof is in the pudding." Liberal arts grads continue to succeed despite the continued debates and concerns about how their education prepares them for the job market. Making intangible skills overtly tangible will only help you to realize that success faster.
Dr. Robert Englebert is an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Science, University of Saskatchewan, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses and supervises at the graduate level.