We all know it’s been a difficult couple of years. Whatever we call it—a recession, a market correction, or an economic implosion—it’s already been a tough, wild ride. What’s next for business? For the economy? And what does all that have to do with the prospects for liberal arts students applying their education to challenges of the future?
The continuing crisis fosters insecurity, and one place this will be even more noticeable (I predict) is in hiring practices. Recruiters aren’t known for running with inspiration or doing the unexpected. In times of uncertainty, they’re even less likely to stray from what they believe is a proven path. More likely, they’ll stay the course—i.e., hire specialists, not generalists. Not that they think specialists will save business, but since no one knows what will, they’re likely to continue to try to slot specialized skills into specialized jobs.
In other words, don’t expect recruiters to see a sagging economy as an opportunity to suddenly move English majors to the front of the candidate line.
And while we’re on the subject of limited imagination during an economic downturn, those online resume products (ASPs, application service providers’ products) into which applicants type their resumes online will continue to deconstruct experience, education, objectives into bite-sized, searchable terms. That won’t do our liberal arts students much good either, since online resume software looks for skills, not people.
While none of that sounds good for liberal arts majors entering the job market, let’s not declare defeat prematurely. There are two things we as educators and career advisors can do to help them find their way into a workforce where their abilities are very much needed. They are:
1) Get out in front of hiring managers and tell them how to put communication skills, analytical abilities and cultural competence to work in their organizations. Tell them how and why the humanities and social sciences are the essential foundation of day-to-day work performance.
2) Make liberal arts students business-literate. Equip them with the knowledge of how to apply what they know. (We expect business students to be literate; why not expect liberal arts students to be business-literate?)
So far, the approach to helping liberal arts students find jobs has been to (1) put under-prepared students in front of hiring managers where they sheepishly and apologetically explain they’ve majored in philosophy or anthropology, and (2) protect liberal arts students from the evils of commerce by excluding from their course of study anything practical (for example, “Business Writing for Writers”).
Neither approach is serving them well. It’s a new year, and time for a new approach. A shaky economy isn’t a reason to hesitate. If anything, it’s a reason to put broadly educated students to work. There will never be a time when business says “Things are good, and we’re quite comfortable, so let’s take a few chances and start hiring college students whose majors we don’t understand.” It’s not going to happen, so don’t wait for it. Instead, let’s make sure liberal arts students are readier than ever before for the jobs we need them to do and that hiring managers broaden their outlook.
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