Doorman and ditch digger wasn’t what I expected with a B.A.

A graduate’s call for policies to discourage studying arts

Tracy Hunter/Flickr

“Well paid, never laid.” That was the mantra my freshman liberal arts class used to mock freshman engineering students in 2003. A decade later, I suspect the many minimum-wage earning baristas with liberal arts degrees, who live in their parents’ basements, are the ones not getting “laid.”

A 2011 survey of people who graduated from Ontario undergraduate programs in 2009 shows that liberal arts students earn far less income on average. While engineering graduates made an average of $60,383 two years after graduation, social science grads earned $42,593 and humanities grads earned $38,578.

Stirring half-milk mocha lattes and boomeranging back home is where many unfortunate philosophy, history, English and political science students like me ended up. For many of Generation Y’s university graduates, life in the low-wage service industry has led to an extended adolescence, with consequences that cry out for education policy reforms to lead youth toward the available jobs.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. On my first day at the University of Western Ontario in 2003, I attended an assembly at my liberal arts college at which one of the professors explained to us that we were “elite.” We were “unconventional.” We had made the right choice. Considering he was gazing down upon 50 hung-over 18-year-olds in sweatpants, he couldn’t have taken himself too seriously, but we believed. After all, we’d been told our whole lives that we were special.

My experience in university was everything I hoped it would be when I decided leave home for university. I made lifelong friends from all over Canada. I partied with a level of devotion and stamina that would probably land me in the hospital today. I had some truly exceptional professors.

Fast forward to May 2007. Political science degree in one hand, news article describing boundless opportunities in the other, I drove across the country to Calgary, Alta. and took a construction job to pay the bills during my search for the $90,000 per year office job I felt was just around the corner.

Along with about 10 other young new arrivals to Alberta, I showed up on the first day at the construction site and the foreman asked each of us, “do you have any skills?” That’s when it hit me. I didn’t have any marketable skills. Four years in school and all I had was the “ability to think critically.” That’s certainly a skill, but not exactly a jaw-dropper in human resources departments.

So for the next three seasons I lived the life of the unskilled. In the summer, I dug ditches in 40 degree heat while being yelled at by a foreman two years younger than me. In the fall, I got a job as a night-shift mobile security guard, patrolling dark buildings and avoiding attacks from trespassers who often were drunk or high. In the winter I was hired as a doorman for $9 per hour at an after-hours club. On my first day I learned that two previous doormen had been fatally stabbed.

Finally, in the spring of 2008, I got an office job doing data entry, which only required a high school diploma. But I’ve picked up practical finance and administration skills and now make somewhere in between the aforementioned average incomes of social science and engineering graduates.

Still, I am one of the lucky ones. Of my friends who graduated with liberal arts degrees, all of them have either returned to school to be trained for specific jobs, found employment through family connections or remain underemployed. None have started a career on the strength of their liberal arts degrees alone. None own their own homes. None are married. None have children.

So you’ll have to forgive the hipster movement, the Occupy movement, the Quebec tuition protest and all the other angst-filled “direct action” by Generation Y. In my view, this behaviour is linked to the humiliation of post-university underemployment and a childhood of entitlement. We were raised to feel like the system owes us something, so it’s natural that we would blame the system.

The system did let us down, but not in the way as many in my bank-hating, gluten-free eating, basement-dwelling generation would have you believe. When so many 17-year-olds head off to be processed in the university industry, it seems like everybody wins, because politicians get to brag about high enrollment, parents get to brag about their kids being smart and the kids get to party.

But there is not enough discussion about what’s needed in the future economy and what job prospects degree programs can provide. This needs to change. Reports on employment outlooks for each field of post-secondary study should be at the beginning of every enrollment brochure, even before the idealistic photos of multi-ethnic students playing Frisbee on a sunny day.

Tuition fees should be lower for programs that are likely to result in jobs. If this had occurred in 2003, there wouldn’t be a shortage of technologists, engineers, and other experts today, as described in the recent report People without Jobs: Jobs without People.

These reductions in tuition can be paid for by increasing tuition for liberal arts programs. Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, recently proposed that undergraduate students pay less for engineering and biotechnology degrees than for arts degrees such as history. I think he’s on to something.

Those who are truly passionate about liberal arts will withstand the tuition increase with the support of loans, which they should be able to pay off more quickly since there will be less competition for jobs requiring their degrees. They will be happy that the hung-over, semi-literate masses, deterred by higher tuition, are out driving the economy instead of talking at the back of classes. Coffee shops will have a less literate staff, but Canada will have a more prosperous future.




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Doorman and ditch digger wasn’t what I expected with a B.A.

  1. I have a fine arts degree from 1976. Back then we were assured of a high paying job and all that came with it. Actresses, models and airline stewardesses used to sew patches on our jeans and run down to the Brewers Retail for us, on command. We used up the clean air, clean water and cheap oil, worked up a huge national debt, and now you losers are stuck paying it back. Well, so long suckers. I’m back to lounging by the heated swimming pool and to eating high off the food chain.

  2. Some questions:

    1) Should university serve as a training ground for specific occupations?
    2) Should the tuition charged represent the desirability of certain occupations (which is constantly shifting and often subjective), rather than some portion of the real costs of delivering that education?
    3) Is there intrinsic value in the knowledge, intellectual breadth and life experience gained from pursuing an undergraduate degree, irrespective of its direct usefulness for eventual employment?

    I ask these questions as an STEM-trained academic who seldom teaches liberal arts students, but believes that any university neglecting the arts and humanities cannot truly call itself an institution of higher learning.

    • The actual higher learning institution is not the universities, kids. It’s in your society, and daily life. Wake up!

      • You want a good job? Get out of the city and head North.

    • Although I don’t really have a solution to offer, I can definitely say that increasing the tuition to liberal arts is NOT the answer. If it really is, as Kasman says, that there is a shortage of technologists, engineers, “and other experts,” then lowering their program costs might offer an incentive to going into these programs. But why would you lower the tuition for liberal arts? Students who actually want a liberal arts tuition will have to pay MORE than they would need to. In a sense, Arts students would be paying for engineering students to go to school, which doesn’t seem to be very fair. Furthermore, I am positive that the difference in tuition between liberal arts and engineering is NOT a deterrence to those who really WANT to become engineers.

      I am going into my last year of undergrad in liberal arts, and I can honestly say to you that I have been extremely thankful for my arts degree. I have become a more intelligent person, not just because I can memorize facts but because I can think critically (thanks to my philosophy and English programs). I can tell you that although I will probably never get a job with the job requirement, “Must know Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics,” I am not too worried about this. Perhaps it is because I’m still young, and I don’t have to worry about paying off the mortgage, but I am thankful for my wholesome arts education. In any given year, I am learning everything from “Greek History” to “Freud on Dostoevsky” and “the death of a mass star” to “Haydn at the Esterhazy Palace.” I can tell you that although I don’t have any “marketable skills” like knowing C+ or Java, I can carry on an intellectual conversation on just about anything, and I think that is what is important.

      I have been unhappy about the university system for quite some time now. I have taken some classes that students in other faculties (science, management, engineering) take as electives. One class, for example, was full of students from other faculties. I often overheard these students from the other faculties telling their friends that the class on “Mozart and Haydn” was stupid and a waste of time. They complained that they had to take electives in the arts faculty because they will “never use it again.” When I hear comments such as this, I am deeply offended. I think it is such a shame that today’s society is fostering extrinsic motivation for going to university. Society tells us Gen Y kids that we need to flock into the sciences, engineering, and business because those will guarantee six-figure salaries. What we really SHOULD be doing is fostering INTRINSIC motivation for obtaining a university degree. It’s such a shame that those students who were complaining about the Mozart and Haydn class couldn’t see that that learning about the world’s musical geniuses was a reward in itself. Funny that they were complaining that the Mozart and Haydn class was so useless and easy when the class average was a B-.

      To answer GrumpyProf’s questions, I do think that universities should serve as a training ground for SOME occupations, like it does now with engineering and the sciences. But I do not think that tuition charged should represent the desirability of certain occupations. This just sounds ridiculous to me. I hardly think that tuition cost is a deterrence to becoming an engineer especially when government aid/grant is so readily available. Furthermore, I definitely think that there is an intrinsic value in knowledge, intellectual breadth, and life experience gained from pursuing an undergraduate degree, but of course, the answer to this question is subjective. I am grateful for my arts degree because it has introduced me to Aristotle, to Mozart, to Picasso, to Ezra Pound, to Wordsworth, to Newton, to issues of ethics and animal welfare, to issues concerning politics, ad infinitum.

      I think the real problem here is that too many students go into university not knowing why. If you want to go to university so that you can become an engineer, doctor, or business analyst, then good for you: go to university. If you want to go to university to learn just for the sake of learning, then all the better: go to university. But if you’re going to university because that’s what everyone else is doing, or because “everyone should at least have a bachelor’s degree,” then I would encourage you to pursue other options. You will only spend four years doing something you don’t want to be doing or worse, you’ll be preventing someone who actually DOES want to go to university FROM going to university. My guess is that many of the “arts graduates” who are still living in their parents’ basement today fall under this last group: the group that never wanted to go to university but went and did it anyway.

      To even begin to solve this problem, I think we have to start at the high school level. In high school, “The University” is portrayed to be your salvation. If you get into university, you’re set for life. You’ll be guaranteed a job that’s better than any apprenticeship or college can get you. But this is horribly wrong! High schools need to give their students the real 411. More importantly, they need to tell their students that “if you don’t know what you want to do, then take a year off. Go exploring. Find your passion. It’s not the end of the world; God FORBID you end up graduating one or two years later than everybody else.”

      A while ago, I wrote a blog post on my Arts Degree; please see here: http://theofficialtta.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/my-two-cents/

    • No one is suggesting that the programs be cancelled, just that the taxpayer, who heavily subsidizes the programs, have a reasonable expectation that their investment will lead to a job.

  3. University already is a job training centre. And the work directed courses like law, medicine, dentistry, engineering, pharmacy and education and the most difficult courses to get into. They attract many of the brightest students.

    No opinion.

    Of course there is intrinsic value in knowledge but it is hard to convince someone of that who has pursued it and ends up with a fascinating hobby while working for minimum wage. Switzerland does a good job of stream students at a young age into jobs that will exist about the time they graduate. They have a 2% youth unemployment level for that very reason. I don’t recommend simply adopting their system, but movement in that direction would be wise. Finding a place for each “qualified” student at the post secondary level, which is what we do, is not wise. Have you heard the joke? Can a student still get a good high school education today? Yes, he can, at York University.

  4. 1. It’s not the job of universities to train you for work. That should fall to the employers, and you should be complaining that employers are no longer offering training to entry-level employees. They expect them to come fresh off the assembly line ready to work, and that’s NEVER how things worked.

    2. You (and those in the statistics you quoted) graduated into a recession. There are people much more skilled and educated than you who can’t find work.

    3. Statistics show that arts grads do worse immediately after school, but in the long run end up in decent jobs.

    4. Society doesn’t owe you a living. If the jobs aren’t there, go make a job for yourself!

  5. What’s in a name?
    All we need do is to differentiate between what we call a college and what we call a technical school and what we call a medical school.
    One college can teach fine arts/liberal arts, the medical school can teach medical//dental subjects, and the technical school can teach things like engineering, computers, and mechanical/technological subjects.
    We can have college grads and we can have medical/dental/technical school grads. Tuition can range accordingly.
    If you want to teach English, take the teaching course at a liberal arts college; if you want to teach computers, take the teaching course at a tech school, etc., etc.
    Too many degrees have become so debased that too many people with college/university degrees can’t write or spell or use correct grammar; they don’t know history, geography, biology, or any foreign language; they don’t know how governments operate — and they don’t care. And too many wonder why their degree doesn’t guarantee them a good-paying job.
    Higher education at one time was just that: education. Now so-called educational institutions exist for the purpose of turning out uneducated graduates who clutch a degree in their mitts and don’t know a pickle from a pomegranate.

  6. Nobody should “expect” a job. The problem in Canada is that we want to tie education experience to the job. When I graduated with an Arts degree in History in the UK I was hired by the Bank of England as a “Graduate Trainee” emphasis on the trainee. What business in UK wanted was an educated brain that they could train, my fellow trainees had degrees ranging from Archeology to Zoology. The founder of the Marks and Spencer retail chain is famous for saying, “I don’t hire people who know how to run my business, I hire people to train to run my business”

    When I arrived in Canada I was interviewed for several banking positions similar to my previous job. I was constantly told, we would like to hire you, you have the relevant experience, but we have to hire someone with an economics degree.

    I did eventually find a job in the banking sector and, using my extremely well educated brain, found success in banking, libraries, and finally Education.

    Universities should educate, Business should train.

  7. At my university, engineering tuition cost more than for any other faculty. The financial advantages began the summer after first year. As the sole female in the faculty, I earned more than any other woman on campus. Arts students had no skills than anybody would pay for, and especially females,who mostly worked at resorts or in restaurants. I chose engineering–when everyone thought I should pursue an English major– because I didn’t want to have my love of reading ruined for life by being subjected to officialdom’s opinion of literature.And I’d make the same decision today. A cousin who took a BA and then went on to become an English professor tells me that he can no longer read any book with pleasure.

  8. The propaganda for almost ANY university program emphasizes what a great choice and brilliant future you will have if you study and get a degree in the faculty of whatever. This positive spin continues until the day after you graduate when suddenly it changes to “Did you really think you would get a job requiring this education?” At least with the younger generation, they have realized that university is for interest, and college is for jobs. Of course, then our government makes rules that allow corporations to outsource those jobs to cheaper, third world markets. Remember when an Information Technology degree or diploma would get you hired? Many of those jobs are now outsourced to “Bill” from Mumbai. Our education system creates high expectations, but does not deliver. We only need so many doctors and engineers. We need to develop a more realistic education system, and stop lying to young people about what type of education will pay off.

  9. I have been asking my graduating students for awhile now, “So what are you planning to do with that degree in X? and Are there many jobs in that field?” Some have answers to those questions but many do not. I am still shocked at how often they are not happy when I mention community college as an option. As parents and educators, we still have a long way to go to get the message out there that community college is NOT for the less intelligent.

  10. So Moral of the story is what people have known for years, Arts degrees are worthless.

  11. Part of the problem lies in the perception of post-secondary education as preparation for a job or career, and perhaps educational institutions should do a better job of clarifying this. Yes, there are many jobs that one can acquire with specific degrees (think medicine, law, nursing, pharmacy, teaching, etc.) But the true value for many post-secondary courses lies not in their ability to qualify students for paid employment, but in providing them with broader knowledge, critical thinking skills and personal growth. There is true value in learning for the sake of learning alone, rather than focusing on what that learning will provide in terms of income. We should also consider that a basic liberal arts education can be the stepping stone for future opportunity, without necessarily providing an actual job upon its completion. Unfortunately, not many can afford the cost of higher education without the expectation of future financial gain.

    I think it would be great if we could somehow steer students into suitable careers and provide training for them, based on the workforce needs of the population as well as the interests of the students. And, at the same time, offer post-secondary liberal arts degree programs that could be accessed on a part-time basis, at a reasonable cost,to those with that thirst for knowledge–thus providing for workforce needs, personal satisfaction and need for income all at the same time. But then, I’m a dreamer!

  12. @Red, who used up all your clean air since 1976? I remember smoke stacks bellowing from power plants in Pittsburgh when I watched the Steelers in the 70′s. The three rivers area is much improved since the 70′s and our ability to measure and monitor pollution across the world has vastly improved. Surely with the improvement of science and the ability to monitor pollution we haven’t used all of your clean. I breathe fine, how about you?

    • Clean air? Did I say clean air? I meant to say warm air containing unprecedented amounts of moisture. That’s what I meant. Ooops. Next thing you know I will be challenged those women really being models, airline stewardesses and actresses. Ahhh, what the heck. They were lady truck drivers, each and every one of them. And actually, there was only one of them. And she patched the jeans of every guy in the dorm. When we sent her out for beer she drank it, cashed the empties and stole the change. My face is red.

  13. Folks in humanities should at least take the time to learn French during their undergrad. Nothing like bilinguism to guarantee a good office job.

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