To hear policymakers and higher-education wonks tell it, there’s now a chasm separating what high-tech industries need in order to stay competitive and the skills current students can offer once they’re old enough to work for them. It’s called the STEM gap, shorthand for all the science, technology, engineering, and mathematical knowledge that not enough of the next generation of American workers are picking up. And not only is it widening, it’s opening fissures in non-STEM fields as well, as technology transforms industries that didn't used to need data scientists or programmers but now do.
In the face of that shortfall, it’s become even more common than usual to wonder whether the liberal arts degree is finally on the verge of extinction. For current undergrads, of course, there are practical considerations. How can you study what you love—say, classical Persian poetry—and still get a job when you graduate, not to mention a career for the long-term?
"There is rightly a huge focus on turning out STEM graduates," says Michelle Tullier, Georgia Tech’s executive director of Career Development, "but there’s also a lot of awareness of the importance of the skills and knowledge that comes with a liberal arts degree. Those two things do not have to be in conflict."
So why do they appear to be?
"I think the mixed message is coming from many angles," Tullier says. As the exorbitant costs of a college education keep questions about its value and purpose in the national spotlight, students, their parents, lawmakers, and educational institutions themselves are all rushing to make claims about how and whether a four-year degree pays off.
At their heart is the question of what payoff looks like. Is it landing a high-salaried job after graduating, or becoming an informed, critical-thinking member of society? Should the focus be on filling the STEM gap or on education for its own sake? In Tullier’s view, "it doesn’t have to be an either-or."
If history is any guide, specialized degrees have their risks, particularly when getting one is supposed to reduce them. As the New Yorker columnist John Cassidy recently pointed out, "During the dot-com era, enrollment in computer-science and information-technology programs rose sharply. After the bursting of the stock-market bubble, many of these graduates couldn’t find work."
Today’s market needs aren’t a much better guide for long-term career planning. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected the U.S. economy to add some 5 million jobs in health care and social services between 2012 and 2022. For the class of 2019, that’s surely something to bear in mind when they graduate four years from now. But what about 14 years from now, or 40? Within just the next decade, some experts expect many of today’s top jobs to become obsolete as automation does away with entire professions and the gig economy continues to shake up traditional employment models.
As a result, designing an undergraduate experience with the goal of landing a great job when you graduate isn’t just nearsighted, it’s nearly impossible. But if that’s an argument in favor of a liberal arts degree, it’s hardly a straightforward one.
"The liberal arts connect with a person’s authentic self," says Mary Raymond, associate dean of students and director of Career Development at Pomona College. In that view, a liberal arts education is as valuable as it’s ever been, for much the same reasons its advocates have put forward for decades.
"When it’s your interests [that are] guiding you, then you’re building...your own little ‘business’ of what motivates you," Raymond explains, "as opposed to something someone says is a good idea and is going to give you security. Because we know there’s no security."
In a 2014 Bentley University survey of over 3,000 U.S. high school and college students, recent grads, employers, and recruiters, two-thirds of respondents said so-called "hard," technical skills and "soft," interpersonal and critical-thinking abilities—those typically associated with the liberal arts—were "equally important" in today’s job force. But when it came down to actually making hires, employers were more keen on candidates with the technical chops to fulfill companies’ immediate needs.
Needless to say, that complicates things for students. For one thing, Tullier says, "soft skills are really anything but soft because they’re hard to master and very very important, and employers do recognize that." But the key for students, she advises, "is to think of yourself as a portfolio of skills and knowledge that are going to fluctuate across your whole lifetime, within reason," just as the job market does the same.
Raymond agrees. "That’s also why a first-destination [job after graduating] is not going to determine the return on investment of a liberal arts education."
For students, that means figuring out how their passions connect with other, real-world opportunities. "I wouldn’t say go study classics and religion and read all summer," Raymond says. "Take a coding class. Take something that challenges the other side of your mind."
It doesn’t seem fair, but the fact is that many entry-level positions are now no longer entry-level at all, with many employers asking for up to three years' experience to qualify for their most junior-level positions. That's made summer internships all the more crucial, not just for gaining practical experience but for building a network of contacts to call on when it’s time to send out that first batch of job applications.
According to Amish Shah, founder of the recruitment firm Millennium Search, students are now more likely to succeed when they apply that same exploratory, liberal arts ethos to those off-campus experiences.
"Travel as much as you can," he advises. "Go overseas. Get as many experiences as you can. That will not only help you figure out what you’re interested in and what’s out there, it makes you more competitive than, ‘I played rugby, I was in a fraternity.’"
Seven or eight years ago, Shah says, top employers "used to just recruit from the top tech and Ivy League schools. Now things have changed."
Today, competition for talented tech professionals isn’t playing entirely into companies’ hands. It’s also "fueling a lot of entrepreneurship and innovation," Shah says, that's making even major technology and finance companies work harder—and in some cases, rethink their criteria—to find the best candidates. As the economy recovers from the recession of the last decade, he’s now "seeing more college students who want to start companies rather than go work for somebody."
In other words, many of the same factors contributing to the STEM gap are also expanding new graduates' options beyond just becoming STEM professionals. As Shah puts it, "You don’t need to know how to program to fly a drone."
Of course, the demand for those technical skills will still be there, but they'll create demand for others, too—ones that don't get as much press. In the next five to 10 years, Shah says, a litany of emerging, high-tech industries—commercial drones, self-driving cars, space exploration, e-sports, mobile and online gaming, wearables, health care technology, video and live broadcasting, cybersecurity, and 3-D printing, not to mention safety and compliance around all these fields—will require "human evaluators" and other non-technical professionals in order to thrive.
As the pace of all this innovation picks up, the next generation of workers will need to keep exploring, adapting, and broadening their experiences—something a liberal arts degree has always offered great training in.
"Students have to be their own advocates in a bigger way now," Mary Raymond, of Pomona College, says, and then adds, "Remember you’re a work in progress."