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The Case for Humanities Hiring

Graduate receiving a diploma, close-up of hands

Businesses hiring workers with a humanities degree may need to invest more time developing specialized skill sets, but if organizations are aiming to think more creatively — and as a result spur innovation — bringing on such employees may be worth the extra effort.

Of the 1.65 million bachelor’s degrees earned in 2009-10 in the United States, 173,000 were in social sciences and history, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s the second-most common degree after business at 358,000. And as the number of people earning a bachelor’s degree continues to rise — the figure has increased more than 33 percent since the start of the decade — companies may be seeing more entry-level job applicants with a humanities degree.

What is more, while 92 percent of U.S.-born chief executives and heads of product engineering have a bachelor’s degree, only 37 percent have degrees in engineering or computer technology and just 2 percent have degrees in mathematics, according to a Duke and Harvard University 2008 study of 502 technology companies.

Experts say what a humanities degree lacks is made up for in other areas that involve problem solving, creative thinking and interacting with others.

“They bring interpersonal skills, they bring problem-solving skills [and] they bring social-relationship skills,” said Stephen Rose, a research professor and senior economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “They have a variety of skills that make them work well with others, they are creative and have a long history of making the transition from college into the private labor force.”

Rose said a four-year degree is a significant credential signifying an employee’s ability to be trained and developed in a technical area. Businesses in the insurance and finance fields, he used as an example, generally have training programs well-suited for workers with a humanities background because of their structure and length.

For companies to get the most out of workers with a humanities background there needs to be on-the-job technical skills training and room for individual development. Rose said businesses should embrace employees’ creative approach to tasks by placing them in interpersonal roles within the company that target their strengths.

For Tony Golsby-Smith, CEO of Second Road, an Australian consultancy, young workers with a humanities degree have helped his company think outside the box. In a blog post in the Harvard Business Review, Golsby-Smith writes that this has made these workers a valuable addition to the company.

“There are plenty of MBAs and even Ph.D.s in economics, chemistry, or computer science, in the corporate ranks,” Golsby-Smith writes. “Intellectual wattage is not lacking. It’s the right intellectual wattage that’s hard to find. … People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings, say, have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.”

Georgetown’s Rose agreed, saying employees’ soft skills such as the ability to work on a team and solve complex problems, often trump the short-term advantage of having a technical skill.

“Humanities is a bit more open, and they have generalized skills so they don’t make a transition quite as quickly as other majors,” Rose said. “It’s not terrible, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s not as good as other majors.”

Jessica DuBois-Maahs is an editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.