Is An MFA The New MBA?

Companies all across America are starting to see a critical talent gap as older employees retire. Arts students may not have all the traditional skills, but they have the most important one: creativity.

An estimated 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day for at least the next 17 years, according to data from the Pew Research Center. And while many of them might choose to work beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, leaders everywhere are facing the same daunting issue: A great tsunami of Baby Boomer retirement is coming.

Though it’s likely to reshape the workplace for years to come, many organizations say they aren’t prepared for such an unprecedented brain drain. The projections of younger workers entering the workforce are even more shocking.

In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the 10 years between 2010 to 2020, the number of workers between the ages of 16 to 54 will decrease by about 1 million—while the number of workers over the age of 54 will increase by more than 11 million.

Statistics as bracing as those have many organizations redoubling their efforts at retaining older workers.

But as a leader, your biggest human capital challenge is this: Where will you find enough next-generation workers with the skills required for success? This challenge is even greater when you factor in the nature of today’s flexible and contingent labor market.

Consider this: Today’s contingent economy has people moving constantly from one job to another, one type of work to another, one industry to a different industry. In fact, on average, a person between the ages of 25 and 45 will hold 11 different jobs in their lifetime. Thirty percent of us will work in more than 15 different jobs over the course of our careers.

Organizations far and wide—perhaps even yours—will compete intensely for workers who are adaptable, resourceful, and can quickly learn and apply new skills to a variety of challenges. Where can you find such workers?

One answer runs counter to much conventional wisdom: Ask an artist.

Artists know the world of adaptability and resourcefulness very well. In fact, according to an annual survey tracking the career trajectories of more than 65,000 artists from hundreds of arts schools, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), close to 60 percent of arts graduates hold more than two jobs at once, and approximately 20 percent have more than three.

What’s more, regardless of whether they work in the arts or in other businesses, more then three-quarters of arts graduates say that critical thinking, creativity, and the ability to work with others are skills they both learned in school and use on a regular basis in their current work. Arts graduates are plucky and understand how to use their creative skills in a variety of settings.

It’s common today to debate the comparative merits and economic value of various college majors, but those of us who track issues and trends around the nation’s creative economy contend that much of the comparisons miss the mark in important and fundamental ways.

But don’t just take me at my word: No less a force in global business than IBM found, in a global study of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries, that the most important skill for successfully navigating our increasingly complex, volatile, and uncertain world is none other than creativity.

Is art school the next B-school? Hardly, though artists often possess the skills and temperament that business leaders regularly say are in short supply: creativity, resiliency, flexibility, high tolerance for risk and ambiguity, as well as the courage to fail.

Here’s what business leaders might consider in tapping talent from the creative economy:

Integrate arts on the job
The arts are not just a hobby. Employees trained in the arts can draw on their creative talents and apply what they might do naturally in the studio or while recording music or making a film to the types of puzzles they deal with every day.

Arts-trained employees won’t leave their creativity at the doorstep when they join our firms or organizations. Ask them to explicitly think about puzzles using their artistic hat/lens. Invite a local theater group to work with employees on improvisation exercises to free up their creative juices. Research has shown that when people engage in improv they later generate more creative ideas to a range of issues and challenges.

Fail more often
Encourage employees and students to take more risks and to stretch their creativity. Give them space and permission to fail. Figure out how to incorporate critical feedback into an ongoing process of improvement and innovation. Ask an artist to come in and run a "critical feedback" workshop for employees. Or someone with design experience to help people think about "rapid prototyping" as a way to audition new ideas. Artists understand that you need to fail often in order to succeed.

Sit with ambiguity
Employees in a lot of settings should become more comfortable with ambiguity. In my classes, students writhe in pain when I give them an ambiguous assignment. They naturally want to know exactly what they need to do to get the desired grade. Not only do we as teachers and employers need to be comfortable giving work assignments where we build in ambiguity, but we need to help those we mentor learn how to begin a process or a task without knowing what the outcome will be. Again, having an artist facilitate a workshop where a creative task is emergent, shifting, and where new information requires adjustments and negotiation, would be a great first step.

The U.S. graduates more than 130,000 visual and performing arts graduates every year. Like virtually every other college major, close to one-half of all these graduates will end up working in professions largely unrelated to their degree. These arts graduates walk among us; many find their way into our businesses; some are sitting next to us in board meetings. And many others have started their own businesses to rave reviews.

More often than not, arts graduates are invisible to us when we search for new talent. But based on the SNAAP research findings, one of the largest surveys ever conducted of college graduates, these former art students have many of the skills and habits necessary to navigate a circuitous career—including the constant reinvention and "retooling" necessary for any environment that values innovation.

Many people see artists as shamans, dreamers, outsiders, and rebels. In reality, the artist is a builder, an engineer, a research analyst, a human relations expert, a project manager, a communications specialist, and a salesman. The artist is all of those and more—combined with the imagination of an inventor and the courage of an explorer. Not a bad set of talents for any business challenged to innovate in a world of volatility, uncertainty, and change.

Steven Tepper is Associate Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University and Research Director of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP).

[Image: Flickr user Christopher Bulle]

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56 Comments

  • Kama Shockey

    *More THAN (Paragraph 10). This edit is brought to you by an MFA student. ;)

  • Nicely said. We also know this from Daniel Pink's book of a few years ago - A Whole New Mind (2005), in which he also pitches the MFA as the new MBA. But why do SO many colleges/universities still have SO many business/investment/weath-related folks coming in and going out of their institutions? And why do so many parents, teachers, and the culture/society at large subtly discourage kids from pursuing "the arts"? Wealth in its multitude of forms seems to remain the goal of the vast majority of students who attend college, in part because college has required so much wealth to enter and exit. I love the ideas in this article, and as a retired educator, I very much hope that the future will embody the values laid out here. However, as the U.S. grows increasingly divided between those with deep pockets and those whose clothes barely have pockets...skepticism seems the only realistic way to go in regard to "the artist" as the prototype of success. Schools just don't promote the model.

  • Walter

    I couldn't agree more! An architect by formation myself, I work in the web industry since 1994 and it seems as if I always found a different angle to do things, i.e. business development in the genuine sense.

  • arkay808

    I've been an advertising creative, and now a Creative Director for over 10 years. Arts does not necessarily translate to business creativity. Visual aptitude, for instance, can be completely different from an ability to think on one's feet and improvise in a business setting. Many artists are shy, reserved, and prefer to be executional.

  • Mike Thomas

    Yes, but the same is true of some of those with and MBA. And the main thing you mentioned... executional is EXACTLY the thing businesses need. Most meetings lots of folks with business and financial degrees talk big game but don't go out and DO what needs to be done. I, for one with my meager bachelor of applied arts in sculpture/design like to get things done, I like a project completed. It is this type of focus on results that have pushed me to bigger heights. I'm a terrible introvert, I just know how to fake it! :)

  • Night Owls Press

    Great point: Better talent management for companies requires looking outside the usual MBA track. Andrew M. Jones, author of 'The Fifth Age of Work' (2013), writes about how companies can take advantage of two overlooked sources for hiring: 1) design/art schools or hybrid business schools, and 2) coworking spaces.

    Hybrid programs are promising and there are tons of examples: France’s INSEAD, one of the top business schools in the world, now offers a program jointly with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto runs programs with the Ontario College of Art and Design. Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management runs programs with IDEO and the Cleveland College of Art and Design. Coworking spaces across the globe are teeming creative collectives, where many tech creatives and art creatives go to pursue independent projects and be around fellow freelancers and startups doing similar or complementary work.

    Companies have options; they just need to break away from conventional thinking and recruit the outsiders.

  • FluxAppeal

    This article vexed me a bit as I haven't found this sort of thinking to be the case in corporate. I suppose it takes progressive thinking and innovation to lay new foundations and the trickle down takes time - most businesses need proof & for others to take the risks (probably because their teams lack that creativity).

    As someone who spent years developing critical thinking skills in a corporate environment, when I removed myself from the work force to go back for my art degree, I unwittingly removed myself from the employment pool entirely. Attempting to re-enter the job force, employers weren't the least bit interested in a candidate over 40 with this cross-section of skills - I didn't look good on paper and couldn't get one foot in a door.

    This sort of limited thinking is forcing creative people into freelance & entrepreneurship. Rather than settle for jobs beneath their talents, they're starting businesses and becoming wildly successful. This is the route I chose. Unfortunately, many of the rest fall into dead end careers because these types of skills are scary for employers. In essence, old school thinkers are filtering out innovation and creativity directly in the HR department. Personally, I love that people with talent and creativity are finding new ways to leverage it, hopefully the MBA's will start to take notice. I'll be happy when the term "starving artist" takes its last breath.

  • Laurel Hostetler

    The people retiring in the next 17 years are not going to be Baby Boomers. That Gen has long left the workforce, taking their ideas and attitudes with them. Best to call the next wave of "Elder" (born after 1960) CEOs and Hiring Managers a different Gen entirely and they will embrace the value brought into their companies of integrating both sides of the brain...the artist and the engineer. Future looks bright.

  • condict

    The US Census defines baby boomers as being born from 1946-1964 and many of them (me included) have not yet left the workforce. I think it is safe to say that in today's economy, many of us are delaying retirement -- hopefully we will be retiring in the next 17 years.

  • Choelove

    I was an art history major and I teach PE at an Elementary school. I come up with creative ideas for the kiddos to have fun and learn to love PE:)

  • Danitryn

    Also don't forget that recent graduates need the opportunity to GAIN skills they need in order to succeed in the work place long-term. As the older generation is deciding to stay at work longer (to an older average age of retirement) AND entry level jobs are taken by experienced applicants laid off due to economic pressures, recent graduates are having a hard time breaking into business in any industry. 

  • Kristian Narvesen Nammack

    Yeah but - how do MFAs pay back their student loans vs MFAs?

  • ConsultantsMind

    Thank you for your article.  I completely agree that creativity and innovation are critical skills and resources for companies, and organizations to grow.  I don't agree that a degree - whether that is a MFA, MBA, or MA - has a monopoly of that characteristic.

    Perhaps a better question would be, how can advanced programs adopt and adapt to the need for more creativity, perhaps by using some of the courses, methods, best practices, and norms that thrive in a MFA environment.

    Also, when CEOs say they need innovation and creativity, they are most likely talking about the institutional mechanisms (culture, incentives, hiring and promotion rigor, mentoring, training, incubation funding etc), not "oh we need more creative people".  Personal innovation and enterprise-sized innovation are likely very different things.

    Just a MBA's thoughts.  www.consultantsmind.com

  • Robin Maria Pedrero

    I can offer my services for companies wishing to utilize bringing in an artist for some of your suggested ideas. This would be fun! 

  • Avis

    In my humble opinion, there needs to be more training and respect for integration of the arts into the business world.  As a professor who has an MFA and an MS in education, the students I see who study business and science are not taught creative thinking (critical thinking YES, creative thinking NO) and students in the arts are so busy training to be in that field only, they're not aware that they can transfer their skills and creative knowledge to anything else.  Self discipline is a major element to being in the arts, which I find is lacking among young people today.
    Usually in order to work after college or grad school, many of us in the arts have to get "real" jobs.  Every and any job is a real job today! but the stigma is that artistic skills are useless in other fields.  If nothing else being in the arts teaches you how to get a long with others, meet deadlines and think on your feet,  critical skills in the job market today. 

  • Jacquie Gouveia

    Having just read A Whole New Mind, this is an exciting time for artists and creative people. But being both an artist and a systems analyst, I know first hand how "giving people permission to fail" is going to be a major challenge. Most people (even some artists) are not wired to fail - they will say and do anything to not be wrong or be blamed. Also, not many managers or HR departments in larger organizations are equipped to handle the type of environment an artist prefers to work in (make their own schedule, be given the breathing room to create). I can see smaller companies being much more able to adapt.

  • Tired of 'opinions'

    This is naïve. What is worrisome
    is that such one-sided propagations could, indeed, lead our young down the
    wrong path, with chocolate-colored vision. I am in a position to comment – my
    only child is an arts graduate, and a practitioner of the arts. The
    requirements in business and in the arts for a successful career of creativity
    are vastly different. Creativity alone isn’t enough in any field.

     

    “Arts
    graduates say…” is hardly the basis of any meaningful quantified theorem. A
    much more relevant – and coherent – argument for such a proposition – would
    necessarily have to come from business leaders. Do they really believe that an MFA
    could substitute an MBA? The lack of this exploration is what makes this point
    of view misleading…. it is mere wishful thinking (measuring demand is a key
    need in business). Consider that leaders of multi-billion dollar corporations
    aren’t recognized to be fools…. and if MFA skills were relevant they would
    certainly have replaced management grads by artsy MFAs ones by now. And then
    there would be no such weak wishful notes.

  • W. Pinkham

    No great fortune is made by a team of one. This article understands that team dynamics dictate a need for a diverse room full of divergent opinions. By elevating the voice of the artist in the boardroom, new solutions to old problems will arise. 

    I graduated with my B.A. in World Arts and Cultures from a top-tier university. "What are you going to do with that?" was the common tripe I'd hear. I cut my teeth in non-profit for a few years and have seamlessly transitioned into consulting in branding, marketing and community building. It truly is a great time to hone your creative talents. The shamans, dreamers and rebels will inherit the earth.

  • jmco

    Art or arts is really not the right word. 
    Design is. Unfortunately, like art, design is misclassified or lumped in with decorative. That's a nice design on your purse or car seat leather or whatever. Yes, it can be but it is also *function* and so many other things too. Those other things are more about design than any decorative aspect.Graphic design: which encompasses many fields like interface design, print, corporate identity, information design, typeface design, signage and wayfinding (AKA: environmental graphic design, which also includes museum and exhibition design - the "2D" field that most closely works with architecture), all the designers involved in web site look and feel, packaging design (there is a lot of that!) the list goes on. 
    Industrial design: product design from toasters to cars to top secret weapons used by soldiers to innovative green products as well as some crossover into interface design both physical buttons and screen.
    Architecture: besides showcase buildings by big names, also landscape architecture (this is a university degree, not not your local landscaper), interior architecture, and urban/community planning.
    The one thing all these fields have in common is they tend to eventually start their own business (a studio) with clients of all sizes and kinds. The other thing is all are creative, but with restraints (unlike fine art like painting or performance art, et al who do the work only for themselves, rarely or never for a client let alone a BOSS!)They also all work with systems. A system to come up with answers or a process or iteration. And often the result is a system. A building is a system. A complex interface or app is a system. A book design is a system (print or digital). 
    Designers don't talk about failure as part of the process in the way business might look at it. We see prototyping or process as a means to an end. Also, the end is unending. Nothing is permanent and often identity designers who might build a new brand and system for a client will see it vanish in 10, 20, or 30 years. Products also come and go and industrial designers are (finally) starting to build in reuse of obsolete products as part of the entire system solution.One caution: Design is a big word in business school now. But the design of interest and spoken about by most MBA professors has little to do with what actual design is all about. Even from a business perspective. Design on its one is a very broad term and, as indicated above, is misused unless spoken to like kind. If we all ask our mothers or fathers "What is design" we'll all get different answers and none of them will be right for any one design profession!
    Design is a process and this is very hard for most people to understand. Apple gets it though! Spend most of your time on the process to get it right (irrespective of user testing, which is actually anti design!) It seems riskier but, if the design team is confident and flexible and adaptable for the next release or version, it will succeed more often than not and when it does, it is wild. Apple tried with Newton, but the tech was not quite there yet. Although, many users loved them. But when they combined music and mobile with computing and apps, magic happened.