Andy Kessler argued last year that fluency in coding is now more important than fluency in traditional human languages. While it’s an extreme opinion, he’s hardly alone in this sentiment.
The proliferation of advanced technology like artificial intelligence and its highly publicized potential to change the workforce has fueled an intense focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education across the United States. Schools around the country are adjusting their curriculum accordingly, with the goal of giving today’s students the technical skills they need to “survive” in this new robot-driven workplace.
Silicon Valley in particular has perpetuated the idea that a tech education is paramount to career success. Apple’s Tim Cook urged the President that “coding should be a requirement in every public school.” Google and Facebook now offer crash courses and internships for employees in emerging technologies. Meanwhile, data and analytics-focused education startups like MissionU are attempting to take the place of a traditional university education, promising students to better prepare them “to succeed in the 21st century workforce.”
In this climate, a good old fashioned Liberal Arts degree seems like the last thing anyone should pursue.
While it’s true that STEM skills provide practical tools for the future workforce, this doesn’t mean the so-called “soft” studies are diminishing in value. In fact, counter-intuitive as it may seem, the uniquely human skills polished by a well-rounded Liberal Arts education will make job candidates more competitive for all roles in the digital economy – whether you’re an artist, or an engineer.
Differentiation over Preparation
The “STEM only” mindset is misguided because it focuses narrowly on job preparation. It assumes that the rise in advanced technology in the workplace means most career opportunities will be those requiring highly technical skills, and students should therefore focus their studies vocationally.
But job preparation is a small part of the equation. When it comes to securing a future career, what’s perhaps more important is that students focus their studies on those skills that will most differentiate them from technology. After all, though it’s optimistic to think otherwise, technology can’t do everything. Consider creativity, critical thinking, adaptability, and empathy, to name just a few of the traits we humans possess. As technology and automation tools handle an increasing number of tasks in the workplace, these uniquely human qualities will be especially crucial for today’s graduates because the jobs that remain will be those that can’t easily be performed by a robot or a computer.
Take a look at McKinsey’s report on automation. Each of the jobs noted as comparably unsusceptible to automation all have one thing in common: soft skills. These are jobs that involve “managing and developing people (9 percent automation potential), where expertise is applied to decision-making, planning, or creative work (18 percent), or interacting with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders (20 percent).” According to this report, the workplace gaps that will be left in the wake of technology are not those requiring a deep technical expertise, but those that rely on a mastery of the soft skills – the very skills cultivated by a broad Liberal Arts education.
“Seeking Humanities Grads”
Counter to the popular narrative in Silicon Valley, it turns out soft-skills jobs have been steadily growing since the 1980s. A Harvard Graduate School of Education paper found that nearly all job growth over the past 30 years has been in occupations that are relatively “social skill-intensive.” Moreover, recruiters today are prioritizing soft skills in job candidates, even for the most technical of roles. CareerBuilder’s 2017 job forecast found that 62 percent of employers rated soft skills as very important when hiring (a sentiment echoed by this Wall Street Journal survey). Just a few years ago, LinkedIn found that the third most popular role for Liberal Arts grads was within software development. Take it from this startup CEO, who claims that a humanities foundation and “the uniquely human ability to draw upon experience” has been invaluable for his team of software, UI, and UX designers.
From a macro perspective, we’ll see more career opportunities related to the arts and soft studies develop over the coming decade, with the emergence of a new artisan economy. Strong consumer appetite for all things niche, combined with lower barriers to start and operate a business (thanks to technology and the Internet), will contribute to a reemergence of merchant-craftspeople producing specialty goods. And unlike the artisans of the Middle Ages, today’s artisans can reach a massive pool of customers. In this new economy, artists and creatives have opportunities to make viable, sustainable careers for themselves and their families – something that may not have been achievable even a decade ago.
My Plea to Students
There can be no doubt that in a world that’s increasingly digital, an understanding of computer science is practical for new entrants to the workforce. But that doesn’t mean that we should disregard the very languages – the human languages – that make us unique contributors. In fact, the most effective workplaces are those that combine technical and human elements (the best engineers I’ve worked with are those who approach product development through a creative marketing lens).
For students with interests in Liberal Arts, here is my plea: Don’t drop your creative ambitions. If you really want to stand out in the job market, now is the time to cultivate them. A Liberal Arts education will teach you to think critically and creatively, to collaborate with and manage people, and to demonstrate human empathy and compassion. As a consequence, I expect you’ll find more interest from potential employers, not less.
Let’s shift the dialogue from “how can today’s students prepare for the jobs of tomorrow?” to “how can today’s students differentiate themselves and provide the most value in the new world of work?”
My quick answer: Don’t ditch that Liberal Arts degree.
Originally posted to U.S. News & World Report on January 19, 2018.