An arts degree could get graduates a job in the tech sector

Yes, you will get a job with that arts degree

Arts students once feared spending life as a barista. But they’re increasingly popular hires for tech firms.

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Nicole Araya, a University of Waterloo marketing associate intern at Microsoft in the XBOX division and Christina Verdurmen, senior product marketing communications manager pose for a photo at Microsoft Canada Head Office in Mississauga on February 26, 2019. (Photograph by Carlos Osorio)

After years of dire warnings about the limited value of their degree, liberal arts students are making a surprising discovery: Employers want them. It turns out their skills—including the ability to communicate, solve problems, think critically and collaborate—are in demand for many sectors, including finance and technology.

Arts graduates still struggle to translate what they gained during four years of study. Faculties once sniffed at preparing students for the job market, but Canadian universities now promote work placements for arts students, coach them on careers, and offer interdisciplinary degrees to produce well-rounded graduates. Still, university officials and employers warn that heavy lifting remains to sustain this turnaround in thinking.

The University of Waterloo is among those reporting success on this front. While known for graduating engineers, computer scientists and entrepreneurs, the school actually has 19 per cent of its students enrolled in liberal arts programs such as languages, economics, fine arts, philosophy, sociology and religion.

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The school is a pioneer in co-op education, or paid work placements embedded in academic studies. It reports that the number of co-op arts students hired by the finance sector more than quadrupled to 358 in 2017-18, up from 81 in 2007-08. Those hired on four-month terms by technology companies more than tripled to 531 from 162 over the same period.

Nicole Araya was unsure about a career when she applied to universities in 2015. “But I always had a passion for social sciences,” she says, choosing sociology as part of a unique undergraduate degree in arts and business at Waterloo. When she learned the university offered co-op placements for students like her, “It was like the cherry on the top.”

Araya is on her second placement at Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont., where she assists a 10-person team on local content and marketing strategies for Xbox, the company’s popular video game platform. She says her academic background enables her to bring a different perspective to tech-focused discussions. “[It’s] things like communication, problem-solving and teamwork, when you are able to think in a whole new way as opposed to somebody who is used to being methodical, absolutist and definitive in a yes-no problem-solving structure like STEM,” she says.

After four placements, including at a major bank and a Waterloo startup incubator, Araya hopes to land a job in the tech sector after graduating next year. “When you have liberal arts students in a highly technical company, you are fostering a workplace and environment that is going to maximize its results.”

Her assessment draws no argument from Cheri Chevalier, worldwide sales leader for marketing solutions at Microsoft. In her industry, says Chevalier, “things move so quickly and the pace of innovation is so high that we need people who can think critically, react, solve problems and have that high level of intelligent agility and adaptability that will enable them to be successful in any role.” She says she looks for candidates who “can work with each other across groups and divisions . . . and are able to see things from other people’s perspective and who are able to communicate clearly and build relationships.”

By those criteria, “liberal arts graduates are particularly well-positioned,” says Chevalier, a Waterloo liberal arts graduate in English, rhetoric and professional writing in 1995. At Waterloo, co-op education is either mandatory or highly popular in hard science disciplines but only available to 56 per cent of arts students. By 2020, the university aims to extend voluntary co-op to all arts students.

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“We want to provide students with these [work] experiences that are real-life, meaningful experiences that connect with the community and the workplace, with the purpose of developing their capabilities to apply [what they learn], have impact and move forward,” says Norah McRae, associate provost of co-operative and experiential education. In Waterloo’s arts co-op program, with 40 per cent of students having no business studies, McRae says “we are seeing employers from all sectors hiring them.” More recruiters now come for these students from a wider array of companies.

Employer interest in liberal arts graduates comes after a decade-long decline in enrolment compared to growth in science-related disciplines. Recently, though, some universities report a modest uptick in student demand for humanities and social sciences degrees. “At a minimum it means holding the line and could very well be the start of another upturn,” observes Gabriel Miller, executive director of the researcher-focused Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

After the global banking meltdown a decade ago, he says, “the country was deeply spooked by the economic crisis.” In response, he says, “families and students were scared away from studying in fields that maybe felt like the connection to a job in the future was not as clear.” But with even technical jobs not immune from disruption, Miller argues liberal arts graduates are well-served by their broad-based degrees. They have the “problem-solving skills, the communication skills and the ability to work across international borders that it will take to succeed in the 21st century,” he says.

Fuelling his argument is recent research that upends predictions that arts grads face dead-end jobs. In 2016, a study by University of Ottawa’s Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI) analyzed tax data of post-secondary graduates and found that engineering, mathematics, computer science and business graduates had higher incomes and earnings growth than other disciplines. But “the oft-maligned humanities and social sciences bachelor graduates” still performed well, according to the study.

“In the past, humanities and social sciences graduates were asked, ‘Why would you be so foolish to study in these areas?’ ” says Ottawa professor Ross Finnie, an EPRI director. “The answer is ‘They don’t do so badly.’ ”

Sarah Elsawy (Photograph by Joel Clifton)

Building on EPRI’s work and other research, the Conference Board of Canada last year examined career outcomes of social sciences and humanities graduates and found them “generally satisfied both with their careers and programs of study.” The board’s report also concluded that those with “non-applied skills” may continue to prosper as they move later on into senior positions. “The data we looked into, including the work of Ross Finnie, shows that humanities and social sciences graduates have strong, stable career outcomes over time and emphatically are not spending time as baristas,” says Matthew McKean, director of future skills for the board.

Still, stereotypes linger about transitions to the job market.

Sarah Elsawy was keen to pursue women’s and gender studies but was dubious about her program’s career options. “I didn’t think I would be able to land a full-time job after I graduated,” she says. But in 2016 she enrolled at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, which is known for co-op placements, including in arts. “I was really aware from the get-go that women’s and gender studies is perceived not to be feasible in all workplaces,” she says. “I thought co-op would give me an added advantage.”

Last year, to her astonishment, she landed a four-month work placement at the Department of National Defence in Ottawa, where she worked on recruitment and other issues. This year, she returned for a second work term and, after graduating next year, will return to the federal department as a full-time employee. “I think I did bring new stuff to the table,” says Elsawy, including writing and communication skills. “They would give me two weeks to write a 500-word summary [of a team discussion] and I would finish it in one to two hours,” she says. “They were shocked.”

At U of T Scarborough’s arts and science co-op program, enrolment rose 90 per cent over the past four years, driven by computer science students. Over that time, the percentage of arts students in overall enrolment dropped to 12.4 per cent this academic year from 17.7 per cent in 2014.

The decline sparked a revaluation by arts faculty on career-related content for the curriculum, says Susan Soikie, the program’s director. “We are taking back [to faculty] what employers are telling us about the skills they value,” she says. In turn, co-op staff assist faculty “to help articulate and potentially change the order of the course so students get information in a way that makes sense when they go out in the work world.”

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Expanding co-op options for liberal arts students has become a priority for leaders in business and higher education. Last fall, the Business Council of Canada, the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and 23 other organizations urged federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau in his March 2019 budget to extend Ottawa’s national work-integrated learning strategy to all students, not just those in STEM. “Employers see investing time, expertise and money into work-integrated learning and new hires as critical to their success,” says Valerie Walker, executive director of the Business/Higher Education Roundtable (BHER). “It is part of their competitiveness.”

In 2018, a BHER survey of its chief executive members cited the most desirable attributes of new employees. Of the top five—collaboration, communication, problem-solving, analytic capacity and resilience—none was technical in nature. But Walker says post-secondary institutions need to intensify efforts to equip students for the work world. “Employers continue to encourage and pressure universities to respond to the increased flexibility that is required for students to be more interdisciplinary, and with a well-rounded education.”

The University of Windsor is among those expanding interdisciplinary offerings. “There is recognition by a number of large businesses that a humanities or social sciences student possesses a number of skills that are really good in the workplace,” says Kyle Asquith, assistant dean of interdisciplinary and graduate studies in Windsor’s faculty of arts, humanities and social sciences. At recruitment events, he also sees changing attitudes among parents. “In recent years I have not seen quite as much pressure from parents saying ‘Well, what kind of job can [students] get with that [arts] degree?’ ”

Revised perceptions may explain the rise in applications to humanities and social sciences programs. Windsor’s arts faculty recorded a 9.6 per cent hike in applications last year, and even higher on a preliminary basis this year. Popular programs include a double major in psychology and business, a degree in disabilities studies (with psychology, gender studies and social work) and other combinations, including double majors in biochemistry and drama or physics and history.

Still, some universities struggle to coax arts students to imagine fulfilling careers with their degrees. In 2015, Simon Fraser University’s English department created a mentorship program linking current students and alumni. “We are trying to show the skill set you develop in an English and humanities degree is quite transferable,” says Michael Everton, associate professor and undergraduate chair in the department. Alumni mentors were keen, but student take-up was low. Everton’s department is currently reimagining a rebooted program this fall. “What [students] need is confidence that their degree is not a dead end,” he says. “They are scared.”

A similarly focused program at the Saint John campus of the University of New Brunswick yielded positive results. In 2017, the department of humanities and languages offered a semester-long credit course of readings, reflections and a final project—an e-portfolio to demonstrate and communicate core skills and aptitudes to future employers.

“The students didn’t understand what it was they could do with an arts degree,” says humanities and languages professor Sandra Bell, who developed and taught the course with fellow professor Margaret Anne Smith. “They were facing, as we are, a kind of barrage of articles and social media about what is the use of arts,” says Bell. “We wanted to provide a course that would give them the skills to talk about what they can do with that.” Student feedback was positive, she says. “They said they felt better about what they were doing and that they could describe their own future better.”

But having a better sales pitch doesn’t help if employers aren’t listening. At Acadia University, in her role as co-op education coordinator for computer science, arts and psychology, Christina McRae deals with employers who initially overlook arts students. “I will often have employers come to me and say we only want a business student,” she says. “Once they identify the skills an arts student has, or even get those students in front of them for an interview, they quite often end up hiring the psychology or English student.”

She says technology firms are especially interested in hiring co-op psychology students for their insights on human interaction with computers, while the oil and gas industry sector now view co-op students in community development, sociology and politics as helpful on energy projects.

In 2014, Acadia student Harrison Regan thought he wanted to study computer science but switched to a psychology major in second year, with a computer science minor. But there was no debate about a co-op education experience.

He spent three work terms with a Dartmouth software company, learning about sales, quality assurance and product management. The experience, he says, “has given me a lot of perspective that I would not have [otherwise] had.”

His psychology degree, he says, “opens a ton of doors, but without that [co-op] work experience, it is hard to get in.”

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