Making a liberal arts education relevant again

Amid widespread uncertainty about the future of work, a Rutgers University course prepares students to be adaptable as the workforce changes.

There’s a lot of talk in the media — including on these pages — about how employers say that they can’t find enough skilled workers to fill open jobs. Most often, their complaints focus on tech skills — not enough people know how to do the jobs created by escalating advances in technology. For many liberal arts college students, the emphasis on technology skills can be intimidating and, ultimately, discouraging.

Only 28 percent of current liberal arts majors say they are confident they will graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in the job market, according to a recent Strada and Gallup survey. Just 32 percent believe they are learning what it takes to be successful in the workplace once they get a job. A Rutgers University course is attempting to address those concerns.

“The focus on tech job skills caused sort of an exodus from the Arts and Sciences into business and STEM-related majors, so there was a need to educate students about the career relevance of the skills that you learn in a liberal arts major, especially when you pair it with an internship or experiential learning,” explains Jennifer Lenahan Cleary, director of the Rutgers University School of Arts and Sciences Career Explorations Initiative.

Prepare for Success: Career Explorations in the Arts and Sciences is an elective offered to sophomores and juniors. According to the course description, it will help students to:

  • Access their interests and identify the career and life skills they are building at the School of Arts and Sciences.
  • Research careers they can enter, either directly from their major or in other fields.
  • Learn to talk to employers and parents about career-specific skills, develop their résumé and plan for next steps.
The liberal arts education major is tied to the world of work in the Prepare for Success course at Rutgers University.
A look inside the Prepare for Success classroom with instructor Ildi Koczan, Assistant Director of Student Services for Career Services, School of Communication and Information, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Photo – Provided

“The goals fall into three buckets. We want to help them to discover themselves, do that self-reflection. Then, we help them begin to explore the world of work using research tools. We relate it back to Arts and Sciences and show them how the research methods that they’re learning in any of their majors can be applied to exploring.”

“The last bucket is teaching them the résumé skills, the networking skills, the storytelling skills to be able to really communicate more effectively about those foundational skills that they develop in Arts and Sciences, and the experiential skills that they’ve gotten through research experiences, volunteer experiences and all these other things that come before an internship,” explains Cleary.

“We talk a lot about the career-readiness skills that they need which are sort of the common denominator, foundational skills that pretty much cross all employers’ wish list. They show up in a lot of the research I did when I was at the Heidrich Center,” says Cleary. The list includes communication, problem-solving, analytical thinking and some digital skills. “It’s that mix of the technical, the writing and communication, face-to-face and written communication skills and soft skills.”

It’s a balance, according to Cleary, and students weren’t necessarily getting that message. “A lot of them were just saying, ‘Okay. I’m gonna be a financial analyst.’ And every class they were taking was around financial analysis. Or it was ‘I need computer science skills. I’m gonna do everything computer science.’ But then they come out and they can’t write, and employers don’t want to hire them.”

She says part of the message from the class is you have to have flexibility, you have to prepare to be adaptable. “That’s where we bring in Slope of the Curve,” says Cleary. Slope of the Curve is our [WorkingNation] animated film that explains how the jobs market is rapidly changing as a result of advances in technology and other factors, and why it’s so important for everyone to be prepared an uncertain future.

Cleary, the class instructor, first shows a video in class from the World Bank on the importance of learning and learning how to learn. The homework that night is Slope of the Curve and a video from the World Economic Forum on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the future of work. “I think they have two somewhat different perspectives. We’re asking them to compare and contrast those worldviews, but also recognize that regardless of the direction in which it changes, it’s likely to be a little bit of both.”

Prepare for Success was inspired by the career exploration work already being done at another Big Ten school, the University of Minnesota, and was first offered in the spring of 2017 in two pilot courses. That grew quickly. “We’re scaling up. We’ve taught 500 students, so far. We have more than a dozen sections this semester and have another 250 to 275 students,” Cleary tells me.

By all accounts, the course has been helpful to the students who’ve taken it. Amy Chai is majoring in comparative literature.

“Before taking this course, I felt nervous about my future and limited in my career due to the major I have chosen. After taking this course, I am more optimistic about the career opportunities, especially after being told that the future is looking for more people who have a liberal arts education and that the future demands are different than the past,” says Chai.

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Ryan Foley feels the same way. “One of the main reasons I took this class was because I didn’t feel as though I had a clear and defined direction. The classroom environment allowed for students to create their own path,” says Foley. “I believe I gained the confidence to be able to commit to and refine my interests. This is how I found myself.”

The Career Explorations Initiative is also working behind the scenes with other departments, faculty, academic services and career services to get everyone talking about career readiness skills. “We’re talking to students about how they’re developing career readiness skills in the various things that they do around college, whether it’s Introductory Italian or a service learning project or work-study. Getting more people in these different offices around campus to start talking with students using the same language around these career readiness skills is key,” according to Cleary.

“I often say it’s important to build your stack. I show the students a pyramid that has the communication, the writing, the problem-solving skills, the arts and sciences skills at the bottom, and then you’ve got the job specific, career-specific skills closer to the top. We tell the students that you need to identify your strengths in the areas where you have the most interest and ability and that should be your major. But then, your major does not give you everything you need to succeed in the job market.”

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