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Diana Sorensen, the dean of arts and humanities at Harvard University, recently penned a letter for Harvard’s Humanities Project to promote studies in the liberal arts. The public letter states: “Study within humanistic disciplines hones precisely the skills needed to navigate a world marked by rapid change, increasing interdependence, transformative technologies and multimedia communications.”
What a degree in the humanities tells a prospective employer is that a liberal arts applicant has spent four or five years engaged in critical thinking, researched and wrote on a wide range of subjects, and applied analytical thinking skills to a range of issues, ranging from economics to politics, culture to philosophy. It shows that the student was disciplined enough to commit to four or five years of studies, completed assignments, collaborated in groups to finish projects, and studied for and passed exams.
A legitimate charge by today’s under-employed university grads is that employers want a minimum of one or two years of experience in chosen field – even for an entry level job – and that universities aren’t producing “job-ready” grads. This leads to the question of who’s responsible for providing job-skills training for young people entering the job market: the university or the employer?
A Maclean’s article in September cites studies from the Conference Board of Canada, showing that employers in this country spent about $705 per employee in 2013. That’s up $17 from 2010, but down from a peak of $1,207 in 1993. Explanations for Canadian corporations’ parsimonious attitude towards training range from a relative lack of competition in many industries (which reduces incentives to boost efficiency) to a risk-averse culture where the return on investment from training isn’t easily quantifiable. Craig Alexander, chief economist for TD Bank, put it this way in a Toronto Star article: this new emphasis on skills, rather than education, is basically a manoeuvre to “get the education system to do the training that in the past the employer would do.”
So the problem really isn’t the humanities degree itself, it’s the reluctance of employers to provide job-specific training to new university graduates. It also doesn’t help that our economy is still recovering from the Great Recession, and that Canadian companies are retaining wads of cash and are reluctant to make investments into their own businesses – including spending to train employees.
What I’ve always believed is that universities should do a better job of informing students about the realties of the job market and about their job prospects after they graduate. They can do a better job of tracking the employment activities of their graduates: how many are working in a management trainee program or in a decent-paying job with a defined career path? How are many are working in non-career, low-paying service sector jobs (e.g. at Home Depot, Chapters, Starbucks, etc.) How many are entering professional schools (e.g. law, medicine, business), vocational training programs, or graduate schools? In this way, students entering university will be more realistic about their post-university career prospects. When graduates accumulate student loans of $50,000 or more, it’s imperative that they get this data going in.
Stay tuned for Part 3.
Milton Kiang, B.A., LL.B. is a professional resume writer with Channel Resume Services and helps jobs applicants create powerful resumes, enabling them to win job interviews in a competitive job market.