The Liberal Arts: Preparing the Workforce of the Future

Some critics of liberal arts education say the experience is not sufficient to provide graduates with a job upon graduation. On the other side, many proponents of the liberal arts believe that the primary role of college is to be a “place to develop a foundational knowledge that provides lifetime benefits.”1 Unfortunately, this type of thinking sets up a false argument—that higher education should only be about enriching the mind and future growth or that higher education should only be about getting a job and/or a future career. In fact, higher education does not have to be about one to the exclusion of the other. A liberal arts education can expose students to depth in an area while allowing the learner to pursue other interests beyond the major. This educational approach develops a well-rounded individual who is not only prepared for a job that exists now but is also equipped with transferable skills to use in jobs that have not yet been created. Some industry watchers predict, for example, that 65 percent of children who are in preschool today will work in jobs that do not currently exist.2 Others say that today’s average college graduate will have twelve to fifteen jobs over his or her lifetime.3 According to the Gartner research firm, “70 percent of employees have not mastered the skills they need to do their jobs today, and 80 percent do not have the skills needed for their current and future roles” due to the digital shifts occurring in business and industry.4 Because of the move toward automation and a more knowledge-based economy, it is imperative that colleges and universities develop graduates who have the capacity for continued growth—graduates with a foundation of skills and knowledge that can be built upon for future employment.

A consistent critique of colleges and universities from leaders in business and industry underscores the need for students to be prepared with “soft” or “essential” skills. According to surveys conducted by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), the skills that will be needed by college graduates in the future include basic skills (reading, writing, mathematics); knowing how to learn; listening and oral communication; problem solving; creative thinking; interpersonal skills; teamwork; negotiation skills; organizational effectiveness and leadership; personal management; and motivation and goal setting.5 (For more information on the skills and experiences employers seek from today’s graduates, see the article by C. Edward Watson and Kathryne Drezek McConnell in this issue.)

These soft or essential skills are embedded in a liberal arts education. The Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) Essential Learning Outcomes promulgated by AAC&U are an attempt to provide a robust framework to evaluate the modern liberal education environment and curriculum. Embedded in this framework are skills that most employers say they expect in a college graduate: inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, information literacy, teamwork and problem-solving, civic knowledge and engagement (local and global), intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning and action, and foundations and skills for lifelong learning.6 Therefore, liberal arts institutions that evaluate curricula through these quintessential outcomes are, by definition, meeting the essential skills requested by most employers. For example, at Georgia College & State University, Georgia’s designated public liberal arts university, we have evaluated all of our major degree plans using the LEAP framework to ensure that all students, without regard to major, are introduced to these skills. This is the cornerstone to GC Journeys, a program that exposes students to the liberal arts and to various high-impact educational practices.

During an annual faculty assessment day, faculty reviewed their curricula, course by course, and determined to what extent the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs) were incorporated into their degree programs. Faculty members were then able to review degree curricula and determine where there was need for greater emphasis on ELOs. Additionally, GC Journeys requires each core course to align with and assess one or more of the ELOs in addition to the course content. This infusion of ELOs in the core and upper-division courses ensures that Georgia College’s core and degree-level curricula are successfully mapped to the essential learning outcomes. Since GC Journeys was built from faculty input on numerous committees, working groups, and task forces over a three-year period, faculty engagement in this process was high.

In addition to enhancing workforce preparation by exposing students to a liberal education that emphasizes skill development, we also know that there is a connection between students’ exposure to mentorships and high-impact practices, their matriculation through college, and their likelihood of having employment after graduation. Writing for Gallup, Brandon Busteed outlined six undergraduate experiences associated with students’ timely graduation, postgraduation satisfaction with work, and even lifetime earnings and happiness. These six experiences include having “a professor who made them excited about learning,” having “professors who cared about them as a person,” having “a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams,” working “on a long-term project,” having “a job or internship where they applied what they were learning,” and being “extremely involved in extracurricular activities.” Busteed found that students who reported having more of these experiences also reported they were thriving and engaged in their work and employment after graduation.7

Indeed, high-impact practices such as a unifying first-year experience, a culminating final-year experience such as a thesis or project, undergraduate research opportunities, community engagement, study abroad, and internships and co-ops have been found to be related to the likelihood of employment in the future. In one study, it was found that high-impact practices were predictive of “future career plans and early job placement.”8 Participation in these practices also provided students with transferable skills and opportunities to talk to employers about their skills and knowledge through stories generated by this participation. These high-impact practices and opportunities provide the vocabulary and real-life talking points whereby students can reveal their exposure to the essential skills and practices desired by the employer.

In GC Journeys, faculty can assess students’ attainment of the essential learning outcomes in their coursework via an ePortfolio. With faculty assistance, students select coursework artifacts that display their proficiency in each of the ELOs. Checkpoints along the way ensure that students make progress toward a thoughtful portfolio that demonstrates the attainment of the outcomes.

Another way liberal arts colleges and universities can enhance students’ progression into the workplace is through the development of a robust career or placement organization. A recent survey found that 67 percent of first-year students want to talk to someone about career qualifications when they begin at the university.9 In the Washington Post, Jeffrey J. Selingo reviewed a conversation with Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, in which Roth stated the belief that liberal arts universities such as Wesleyan “can do better at preparing students for the job market without abandoning their traditional role to provide a broad education.”10 Because making connections between titles of majors in the liberal arts and titles of many occupational positions can be difficult, students need to be able to fully explain and discuss the transferable skills they have acquired in their liberal arts studies. Many times, these skills are directly related to the soft or essential skills that employers say they want. We must assist our graduates in acquiring the language to talk about these skills to a potential employer. In addition, we must do a better job of providing opportunities for students to validate or verify these skills through transcription or portfolio opportunities. A career center that understands its important role in doing this can be invaluable to liberal arts students as they prepare résumés and develop talking points for interviews. In fact, Georgia College & State University has tripled the number of career advisors and heightened the expectation that students will visit these advisors by providing career milestones for students to reach each year. In addition to meeting with academic advisors, students visit a career advisor annually, develop a career plan, craft a résumé, and establish a LinkedIn account prior to graduation. As a result, the career center has seen a significant increase in student participation in career services including career advising appointments and walk-ins, mock interviews, and career fairs. In a survey of students completing the spring 2018 graduation outcomes survey, 97 percent of respondents who secured jobs or graduate school admission by the time they graduated said they had used the Georgia College Career Center!

Other liberal arts universities are attempting to bring programs and ideas to their campuses that will enhance essential skills development and increase the likelihood that employers will find these marketable skills in their graduates. For example, Bates College has used the concept of “purposeful work” to enhance its curriculum to include practitioner-taught courses, and faculty have adapted classes to use real-world problems to help students apply classroom lessons. In addition, students are involved in structured internships in which they do real work for a practitioner in the field. A review of the program found that participating students reported feeling more confident “in their abilities to identify appropriate employers and positions, present their experiences and skills effectively, network, and plan their own careers.”11

In addition, Denison University encourages its current students and graduates to develop these employer-desired, essential skills through a program called OnBoard offered by their career center. OnBoard is an online professional skill-building platform that offers a series of self-paced modules that learners may access to improve their understanding and skills in certain areas. Current Denison students are encouraged to take advantage of these modules during their academic year breaks and between regular coursework. These modules consist of topics such as leadership styles, the time value of money, business data trends, ethics, budget planning, delivering effective workplace presentations, security, working with diversity, office and workspace etiquette, and etiquette beyond the office.12

Liberal arts colleges and universities should reject the uninformed opinion that the graduates they produce are less qualified for the workforce than graduates of other universities. In fact, a liberal arts education produces the skills that business and industry leaders say they want. While the liberal arts have been an established historic tradition in Western society, some educators believe that a preparation in the liberal arts is what students need to find their way into an uncertain future. Recently, a report produced by the World Economic Forum predicted that artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, and other factors would replace the need for five million jobs by 2020.13 This may be why businessman and entrepreneur Mark Cuban recently expressed concern that industry will require a totally different type of individual for the workforce in the future: “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker.”14

Contrary to what the critics say, a liberal arts preparation can provide the skills and preparation many employers look for in today’s employees. The future may indeed demand a workforce that is prepared with skills enhanced by a liberal arts education. So, rather than shrink from arguments that the liberal arts are inadequate preparation for the workforce, we must instead embrace the idea that our graduates have the skills and preparation wanted and needed by the workforce. We must, therefore, provide a robust liberal arts curriculum filled with high-impact opportunities and enhanced with state-of-the-art career placement entities that enable graduates to engage their preparation in the new knowledge-based economy and in future jobs that do not now exist.

NOTES

1. Jeffrey J. Selingo, “What’s the Purpose of College: A Job or an Education?,” Washington Post, February 2, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/02/02/whats-the-purpose-of-college-a-job-or-an-education/.

2. Niall Dunne, “How Technology Will Change the Future of Work,” World Economic Forum, February 24, 2016, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/02/the-future-of-work/.

3. Alison Overholt, “Creating a Gem of a Career,” Fast Company, March 1, 2006, https://www.fastcompany.com/55827/creating-gem-career.

4. Mary Baker, “Gartner Says Only 20 Percent of Employees Have the Skills Needed for Both Their Current Role and Their Future Career,” Business Wire, September 6, 2018, https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180906005082/en/.

5. Anthony P. Carnevale and Nicole Smith, “Workplace Basics: The Skills Employees Need and Employers Want,” Human Resource Development International 16, no. 5 (2013): 491–501, https://doi.org/10.1080/13678868.2013.821267 ; Hart Research Associates, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2018), https://www.aacu.org/research/2018-future-of-work.

6. Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Essential Learning Outcomes,” accessed November 7, 2018, https://www.aacu.org/leap/essential-learning-outcomes.

7. Brandon Busteed, “Is College Worth It? That Depends,” Gallup, April 8, 2015, https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/182312/college-worth-depends.aspx.

8. Angie L. Miller, Louis M. Rocconi, and Amber D. Dumford, “Focus on the Finish Line: Does High-Impact Practice Participation Influence Career Plans and Early Job Attainment?,” Higher Education 75, no. 3 (March 2018): 489–506, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-017-0151-z.

9. Mari Normyle, “5 Requests for Assistance from College Freshmen at the Beginning of Their First Year,” Blog for Enrollment and Student Success, Ruffalo Noel Levitz, March 22, 2018, http://blogem.ruffalonl.com/2018/03/22/college-freshmen-assistance/.

10. Selingo, “What’s the Purpose of College.”

11. Kelly Field, “How Colleges Help Students Find Purpose in Their Work,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2, 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Colleges-Help-Students/244421.

12. Denison University, “OnBoard: An Online Professional Skill-Building Platform,” https://denison.edu/campus/career/onboard.

13. Simon Torkington, “The Jobs of the Future—And the Two Skills You Need to Get Them,” World Economic Forum, September 2, 2016, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/09/jobs-of-future-and-skills-you-need/.

14. Abby Jackson, “CUBAN: Don’t Go to School for Finance—Liberal Arts Is the Future,” Business Insider, February 17, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/mark-cuban-liberal-arts-is-the-future-2017-2.

To respond to this article, email liberaled@aacu.org with the authors’ names on the subject line.


STEVE DORMAN is president of Georgia College & State University. KELLI BROWN is provost of Georgia College & State University.

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