Tailoring a college education to meet workforce demands means embracing all disciplines

Bob Kustra
Bob Kustra

Parents and students considering the best pathway through college or university are hearing dueling banjos on the subject these days. First comes a team of Republican governors from Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and Texas who in recent years targeted liberal arts majors in their respective states for their so-called irrelevance to success in the 21st century workforce and called for their removal from the curriculum.

At the campus level just recently, the majors in history, French and German were proposed for elimination at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and similar cutbacks have been made at Western Illinois University, where liberal arts faculty have been laid off. Legislators who control the purse strings to higher education have asked many state university and college presidents to explain how they can justify degrees in art, history, theater, music, etc. when they say that the majors that employers are hiring come from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines.

Some of this concern over the nature of a state university’s offerings stems from the reality of significant enrollment reductions, especially in states in the East and Midwest. While it’s difficult to argue with the need to adjust the budget accordingly, the aim is always pointed at the liberal arts. That is no shock given the clamor for STEM graduates, but it’s more complicated than that with the mixed signals coming from the marketplace.

For example, in 2016, LinkedIn published the 25 skills that can get you hired, and the overwhelming majority were STEM-related skills. But hold it, in 2018, LinkedIn issued its Emerging Jobs Report, and almost half of the top 10 were soft skills such as communication, teamwork, organizational and leadership skills — skills often identified with liberal arts education.

This last report jibes with a Forbes magazine headline from 2015, “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket.” The article highlighted why Scott Butterfield, the CEO of the successful tech startup Slack Technologies, a business-to-business software company, hired a theater major as the firm’s editorial director. According to Forbes, “Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Texas, software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger.”

As an example, LinkedIn reports that of its 3,426 members who attended Northwestern University and gravitated to the Bay Area, only 30 percent ended up in engineering, research or information technology. Most created nontechnical career paths.

The debate over whether the hard skills of the STEM disciplines or the soft skills of the liberal arts best prepare Americans for the workforce of tomorrow is not over, but it’s clear that more and more employers are seeking workers with skills in communication, critical thinking, mental agility, curiosity and cultural competence, to name just a few often attributed to a major in the liberal arts. In fact, LinkedIn’s official blog reported that liberal arts grads entering the tech workforce outnumbered technical grads from 2010 to 2013.

An even more realistic approach to educating for tomorrow’s workforce recognizes that it is not an either/or proposition. Graduates with balanced strengths in both the soft and hard skills will be the most attractive to employers. Robot-Ready: Human+ Skills for the Future of Work, a recent report by the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, calls for “both” and suggests the time has come for a modern-day Rosetta stone to translate and decode what skills employers seek for their workforce.

Such an effort to engage faculty and employers — without eliminating majors in the liberal arts — is underway at Boise State University, where the Beyond the Major program augments majors with short courses in soft skills and hard skills.

Students earn badges or certificates that validate and translate skills for employers to evaluate in the hiring decision. For example, Boise State has partnered with the Harvard Business School so nonbusiness majors can take its HBX online course in business analytics, accounting and finance, with the student receiving a Certificate of Readiness from HBS.

Beyond the Major will also bring faculty and employers together for the purpose of divining the skills and competencies employers seek from job applicants, beyond those packaged in a particular major. It will also help students more accurately identify and articulate for employers the skills and competencies they derived from their undergraduate education.

Beyond the Major seeks to layer on skills and competencies that employers are looking for without the drastic action of eliminating programs in which students hope to major. Over my 18 years as a university president, I found the answer to what employers want to understandably shift with realities of new markets and the health of the overall economy. To focus all or even most of a college education solely on “what employers want” is to have educational leaders chase their tails in search of the enduring answer to that question.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers’ Corner at Boise State Public Radio and is a regular Statesman contributing columnist.