A Surprising Success Story: Jobs and the Arts and Humanities

Aug 12, 2014 | Updated Oct 12, 2014

When you think "jobs," do you think "arts and humanities"? No? Well, maybe you should. You see, as the world gets bigger and the world's problems become more complex, employers seek more critical, comprehensive, and creative leaders. And the arts and humanities provide just that.

Let me set the scene for you: A 2012 survey of employers conducted by the Association of American Universities indicated that, "73 percent rejected the trend towards narrow technical training and wanted colleges and universities to place more emphasis on critical thinking and analytic reasoning." Another study found that, "78 percent of employers preferred job applicants knowledgeable about global issues and societies and cultures outside the U.S.; 80 percent found written and oral communication key; and 82 percent favored those with civic knowledge, skills, and judgment essential for contributing to the community and to our democratic society."

These surveys are well-substantiated by leading professionals from all fields who underline that many of these skills are found in students with strong backgrounds in English, foreign languages and literatures, the visual and performing arts, music, philosophy, history, or classics, among others.

If you don't believe me, check out The arts and humanities in the 21st Century Workplace site and you will discover that leaders from the world of politics, science, business, medicine, and beyond agree on the need for more students with strong humanistic skills.

On this site, you might find that in 2001 Google was hiring 4,000-5,000 students with a background in the humanities or liberal arts. Why? Because, they said, "developing user interfaces, for example, was at least as much about knowing how to observe and understand people as about pure technological skill."

You might discover that for the Army, NYPD and State Department, the Fortune 500 companies, hospitals, local courts and schools, "the hottest job skill," one for which they can't find enough employees, is fluency in a foreign languages. They anticipate that, "roughly 25,000 jobs are expected to open up for interpreters (who focus on spoken language) and translators (who focus on written language), between 2010 and 2020, the Department of Labor estimates. That represents 42 percent growth for the field and does not include the military, which is also recruiting ferociously for more people."

You might enjoy reading "A Trip to Mars" by Elaina McCartney, former NASA Senior Mission Specialist who operated the Mastcam cameras on the Mars Science Lab, Curiosity. The short version is that her employers saw in Elaina -- a professor at Cornell University with a degree in English Literature -- an interdisciplinary vision that brought a unique quality to a team in which scientists look at the pictures and try to put together a story, "a story that can easily fall short were it not for the dimension provided by the humanities -- plot, characters, language, vision, beauty." In other words, NASA recognized that this former English major could significantly contribute to bringing Mars alive.

You might enjoy a blog on "Leadership Through Theatre" by Susan Frost, President of a Marketing Communications firm. She states that, "Problem solving, good decisions, visions, and -- of course -- critical thinking, are all traits required in leadership, traits we chase in hiring, training we search for to help our teams achieve greatness, characteristics that are easy to define but not so easy to achieve." And she continues by asking: "As leaders, how do we nurture these traits in our employees and associates? Content-based learning is not necessarily transformative. Transformation takes a different approach, one that the Humanities in general, and theatre in particular, foster through questioning and changes in perspective."

And, if you are a student thinking of going into Law or Medicine you might be interested to know that, according to the recently published Humanities Indicators, in 2008, 22 percent of those holding advanced degrees in law (LL.B., J.D., and Ph.D.) had majored in humanities (excluding history). They found that the average test scores of Humanities students who took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) had average test scores close to or appreciably better than students in the sciences. And that from 1991 to 2000 humanities majors were the highest-scoring group of majors on the MCAT, and from 2001 to 2009 only math and statistics majors scored appreciably higher.

Why are the CEO's of successful businesses, leading scientists and medical professionals, entrepreneurs and computer programmers not interested in hiring students with only narrow, tech- or profession-based degrees? Why is it that high-tech companies like Cisco and IBM feel that recent graduates lack knowledge to "analyze large amounts of data or construct a cogent argument"? Because, they report, '"It's not a matter of technical skill," but rather "of knowing how to think."

Getting a job is not about focusing solely on what you want to do, but looking at the broader picture. Think about including the arts and humanities in your education. They just might be the key to your success.