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Wanted: critical thinkers, effective communicators; career options for liberal arts graduates.

There are jobs for qualified students who enter the job search process with sound experience and careful thought about their futures.

When economic times are tough and the job market is poor, many liberal arts graduates from colleges and universities throughout the country believe they will never get a job. The word has gone out: "If you are a liberal arts graduate, you will get nowhere in today's job market." But times change, and employers' preferences fluctuate. The truth is, liberal arts graduates are offered opportunities for careers, and the skills gained through a liberal arts education can work as a springboard to many professions. Although many college students are gearing their educations toward practical futures given the poor job market and economy, liberal arts majors can find jobs. The job market has a demand for qualified candidates who can communicate effectively and who have analytical and critical thinking abilities (Bennett 1992).

The reality of the current job market is that people no longer spend their entire careers with one company. Employees now must take charge of their own careers, and make sure that they develop and maintain skills that keep them marketable. To do so, students need to develop a firm foundation of skills in the beginning; liberal arts majors can develop these skills (Bennett 1992).

Although employers in the 1992-93 Recruiting Trends survey, conducted at Michigan State University, reported an overwhelming number of potential employees interviewing, many employers were also frustrated by the lack of qualified candidates and by the ill-preparation exhibited by the candidates they interviewed. Employer responses also highlighted the importance of communication and critical thinking skills (Scheetz 1992). Their message: there are jobs for qualified students who enter the job search process with sound experience and careful thought about their futures. Employers also reported a marked lack of "minority" candidates. Companies wishing to diversify their workforces are not finding the qualified people they need. This is true for both the business and education fields, and doors of employment are opened for those students who recognize these shortcomings in the current pool of graduates, and make sure they don't enter the job market with those same problems. A liberal arts degree does not offer a direct path to a specific occupation, but job opportunities are available for those individuals with bachelor of arts degrees. True, the task of finding employment may be more difficult for you than your technically trained classmates, but pleasantly aggressive, persistent, and unrelenting job search efforts will yield very positive results. Translating your degree into a career path is probably the most difficult task for liberal arts majors, and the job search process is heavily dependent upon the individual's willingness to perform the research, thinking, and soul-searching necessary to find the career that is right for her or him. Liberal arts majors need to define their career objectives, by identifying occupations related to their major and other positions where a college degree, regardless of academic major, is valuable. Graduates can become doctors, lawyers, professors, or business managers. The key is early identification of career preferences and integrating your liberal arts curriculum with some business and technical courses to provide an edge in a competitive job market. These steps, with some quality work experience, are an integral part of the formula for success in the job market.

The price some students pay when they opt for a practical degree with a more obvious path to employment is a lack of job satisfaction; in short, they settle for a job rather than a career. As Marsha Sinetar argues in her book Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow, (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), people can find satisfying careers by exploring activities and skills they most enjoy before they select a career path. When you consider the time an average person spends on the job, some serious thinking about careers and alternative job options is a cheap investment. A liberal arts education helps a student discover a career, rather than a job. And most college campuses offer a host of student organizations to help students explore different possibilities. An important part of this process is also gaining work experience which a graduate can then translate into a marketable skill for a potential employer. Employers surveyed in Recruiting Trends cited the importance of career-related work experience; nearly two-thirds of the employees they hired had prior work experience. Just 37 percent of the new college graduates hired by surveyed businesses, industries, and government employers had no experience. Internships and co-op work programs are practically a "must" in today's job market, and they also help students determine the fields that best fit them over the long haul. In addition, many internships and co-op jobs translate into full-time employment after graduation, as companies try to maximize the time they invest in the selection of their new employees.

Katie Slade, a 1993 graduate of Michigan State University with a bachelor of arts degree in English, turned her student writing experience into a professional staff position with the Michigan Senate Majority Communications Office. A writer and editor for the Collegiate Employment Research Institute newsletter for three years, Slade took her liberal arts degree, combined it with a summer internship and extensive involvement in campus activities, and transformed them into a career. She interned with Public Sector Consultants, a public opinion monitoring company, during the summer before she graduated. Her job was to analyze legislation for the consulting firm, and she recalls that her liberal arts degree was a key factor in her landing the job.

"The woman who hired me told me the company preferred liberal arts majors, because they wanted people who could think and analyze information," says Slade. "They had a bias toward liberal arts majors." Slade sees her liberal arts degree and broad education as a benefit and not a hindrance in her life. "I gained the ability to think and to reason, rather than just retaining a large amount of information." She sees the liberal arts degree as one of her greatest assets in the job market. "Companies don't want robots. They want people who can adapt to their organization." The key, believes Slade, is taking that basic education and building a record of successful work experiences, because very few people will remain with one organization, or even one career, forever. What careers are possible for liberal arts majors? One obvious option is education, both teaching and administration. Journalism also is an open door for liberal arts graduates with good writing skills and the desire to write. Public relations and advertising are also related career areas. The business field, in addition, has a wealth of possibilities for liberal arts majors, even for those who do not think they have the skills businesses want. David Maters is one example. Maters holds both bachelor's and master's degrees in romance languages and is currently director of sales support at Amdahl Corporation. Rather than thinking in terms of the limitations of his liberal arts degree, Maters emphasized the unlimited opportunities his degree offered: sales and marketing, corporate communications and public relations, technical writing, translating (language), human resources, training and development, and computer programming and analysis.

Liberal arts majors often take longer to find the job they want, and they may switch jobs more often in the early years of their career development, according to a study conducted by Dr. Philip Gardner of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute. Gardner's study, "Career Outcomes: A Study of Liberal Arts Graduates," reported that graduates with liberal arts degrees spend about seven years after graduation before they find a fulfilling job with a long-term career outlook. Other graduates may find more satisfying paths earlier, but usually these other graduates were looking to change career paths within seven to ten years (Gardner 1988). Liberal arts majors found successful careers, but the study noted that often it just took a little longer. Resources to help in a career search are numerous. In addition to Sinetar's book, Nicholas Basta's Major Options provides an extensive listing of majors and matches them with potential careers. He also interviewed numerous people in each area to provide some insights into how to find your career. The Occupational Outlook Handbook, published annually by the U.S. Department of Labor, also contains a wealth of information about more than 250 occupations. Information contained in the publications includes the nature of work involved, education and training needed, and average salaries. The handbook also projects the anticipated growth in each occupation, giving students a gauge on job prospects expected in each field when they graduate.

While job opportunities exist, their numbers have unfortunately not kept pace with the number of new liberal arts graduates receiving college degrees, so competition for these positions is high. With this in mind, students should make sure their skill levels measure up to the expectations of employers. From a skills assessment angle, liberal arts graduates can argue their abilities to perform many jobs currently available on the job market. Provided on the accompanying charts is a list of qualities desired by employers when hiring new college graduates. When reviewing this list, liberal arts graduates, their parents, and especially faculty members encouraged prospective employers to expand their range of academic majors considered for entry-level positions to include liberal arts graduates. In summary, skills desired by employers include versatility, with employees flexible enough to be placed in several job slots, an ability to help people process words, and excellent communication skills. If liberal arts graduates can identify their job preferences and related experiences, employers would agree that graduates with these skills would make excellent new employees.

In a nationally representative survey of 535 major American corporations, focusing on the hiring policies and promotion practices of liberal arts and business college graduates, chief executive officers explicitly encouraged the hiring of liberal arts graduates. According to this survey sample, there are ample opportunities for liberal arts graduates to begin their careers among the nation's major corporate employers. Employees educated in the liberal arts were viewed as bringing exceptional communication, leadership, and creative skills to the workplace. But liberal arts graduates were also seen as comparatively undereducated in the principles and concepts of business practices, and they tended to bring fewer of the specialized skills that corporate recruiters were seeking for entry-level positions. Liberal arts graduates receive comparatively good ratings in the areas of communication skills, understanding people, appreciating ethical concerns, leadership, and innovativeness, but often earn poor ratings for their technical knowledge, quantitative skills, general business knowledge, and disposition toward business (Useem 1988). Liberal arts graduates interested in a business-related career need to supplement their coursework with business classes to be more competitive. Business and industry employers prefer college graduates who are familiar with the language, culture, and experience of the corporate workplace, a point reiterated by Maters. He advises students to learn the language of business and to familiarize themselves with the language and culture. Reading business periodicals, including Business Week, Forbes, and Fortune, as well as the business sections of newspapers, can help students gain insights into the business world. Maters also encourages students to emphasize their work experience when they look for jobs, and to enter the job market with at least some computer skills, even if it is just word processing. Familiarity with graphics, spreadsheets, and desktop publishing also is a plus.

Matching your skills with those of your chosen career is the key for liberal arts majors, because your education does not immediately link you to a specific occupation. But being willing to gain the experience, preferably before you enter the job market, is a crucial step in the search for a job. Employers responding to Recruiting Trends were frustrated by the unrealistic expectations of the students they interviewed. Many were not willing to accept entry-level positions or salaries: "They |college graduates~ wanted to start at the top. College graduates were expecting high salaries handed to them instead of earning responsibility commensurate with salary increases." College degrees are not the ticket to a good-paying, secure job that they were two or three decades ago. A degree is only one step in the process. Liberal arts majors have a great deal to offer the employment world, but it is up to you to match that degree and your own skills with a career. The resources are there; the effort is up to you. Sources:

Bennett, William J., The Devaluing of America. New York, NY: Summit Books, 1992. Gardner, Phil, Sue-Wen Lean, and L. Patrick Scheetz. "Career Outcomes: A Study of Liberal Arts Graduates," East Lansing, MI: Collegiate Employment Research Institute, (1988).

L. Patrick Scheetz is a Director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute and Assistant Director of Career Development and Placement Services at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Susan Stein-Roggenbuck is a master's candidate in history at Michigan State University. Before beginning graduate school, she was a journalist and editor. She is a writer for the Collegiate Employment Research Institute newsletter at MSU.
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Title Annotation:Career Report/Liberal Arts
Author:Scheetz, L. Patrick; Stein-Roggenbuck, Susan
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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