When Dana Thompson was an Art History/Studio Art major, she admits she had no idea what she’d be “doing” with her double major. She certainly never considered she’d be managing training and development for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). But that’s what she’s doing now, leading a department responsible for developing and delivering classes for ODOT employees ranging from technical skills through management development.
“Although I don’t think I knew what I’d be doing in the future, I had no doubt I had the ability to learn.” That, she says, is one of several advantages students of the liberal arts have.
She says, too, that studying art helped her look at image, and initially that led her into retail. She started her career at T.J. Maxx where someone recognized her leadership potential and promoted her to Divisional Manager, an impressive job title that Dana says really translates more to “executive trainee.” Later she moved on to Macy’s, where she worked as an Assistant Store Manager, moved into Training and later was promoted to the Divisonal Vice President of Learning & Development.
Art, Dana says, is an expression of an era, a moment in time and, like literature and psychology, studying art helps us “take a step back and understand something about people and human motivation.” This, of course, has been invaluable in her role as a manager.
What else from her liberal arts education does she use on the job?
“The number one thing I’d say is writing. I write classes, and they must be understandable, clear and well-sequenced.” Gauging audience and writing in plain language are required abilities.
Secondly, she says that collaboration and teamwork are important. “There’s very little we do on our own,” so the ability to be persuasive, manage relationships, and influence others are very important abilities.
Another element of her liberal arts education she finds essential on the job: imagination. Planning requires imagination, and training employees certainly does—envisioning what they’ll need in the future to do their jobs and what the business will need. This also calls for an appreciation of history, taking a look at what worked and what didn’t in order to better envision the future.
Dana also made a really interesting observation about “vocationally” prepared college students—business, computer science, nursing, etc.—and that is this: “Vocational preparation limits people. People’s careers are so long now,” she says. We’re going to change careers several times over, we’re going to work until we’re 70. Are vocational majors preparing people to be accountants or circuit designers for the next 50 years? Liberal arts students are better positioned, she says, to undertake new ventures.
Asked about advice for liberal arts students about to enter the job market: “Talk to everyone you know and people you don’t! Find out what people do. You’ll find yourself saying, ‘There’s a job like that??’ ” Once you’re in a job, understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. “If you’re in a stockroom sorting silver, find out why. Talk to everyone!”
She’s working on a “cultural competency initiative” at ODOT now, helping employees better understand peers and co-workers from different parts of the world—an obvious direct connection to a liberal arts background and an increasingly important area for many businesses.
Once again, communication, imagination, understanding others, and working across culture and language emerge as practical, valuable ingredients of success on the job!