As Tech Companies Hire More Liberal Arts Majors, More Students Are Choosing STEM Degrees

Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - 09:17

The number of students choosing liberal arts majors is dipping. At the same time, more STEM employers are hiring workers with humanities backgrounds, according to a new report by researchers at Strada Education Network and Emsi, a labor market analytics firm.

Bachelors of arts degrees in the humanities decreased from 36 percent in 1970 to 23 percent in 2016, according to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Over the same time period, career-oriented majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics crept from 64 to 77 percent.

According to the paper’s researchers, the number of workers in STEM fields with a liberal arts background is simultaneously increasing. “We are clearly seeing an uptick in the data in terms of percent growth increase in liberal arts backgrounds into technical areas,” says Rob Sentz, chief innovation officer at Emsi and one of the authors of the report.

The study points to estimates from LinkedIn that suggest “between 2010 and 2013, the growth of liberal arts majors entering the technology industry from undergrad outpaced that of computer science and engineering majors by 10 percent.”

The parallel trends are caused by a mismatch between job seekers and employers, the study argues. “The disconnect is that employers are not always great about articulating the skills they are looking for,” says Michelle R. Weise, chief innovation officer at Strada Institute for the Future of Work and another author of the report. “Even if they prioritize skills like communication, the job posting might mostly describe the technical skills.”

The report, which was released Tuesday, suggests the disconnect comes back to the difficulty employers have signaling the broad “human skills” they are looking for.

That inefficiency has been the selling point for what the report estimates to be a $2.9 billion industry around “workforce technology.” Companies specializing in this area focus on connecting talent to opportunity, and startup accelerator LearnLaunch estimates more than 240 such companies have already been funded.

But those fragmented solutions and companies haven’t yet solved the challenges they think exist. “Everyone is building their own proprietary solution for the skills-gap problem,” says Weise.

She sees opportunity in the increased emphasis from the labor market for humanistic skills, such as emotional intelligence and ethics: “To say at a very granular level that this is what a human skill entails breaks down the false dichotomy we have between hard and soft skills. It’s more around how do we think about these uniquely human skills that will resist automation. It gives us a different mindset for the challenges that are ahead.”

Government leaders and education reformers alike have pushed back on the value of a liberal arts education. The report reads that “policymakers have been particularly down on the outcomes of liberal arts, questioning the value of these majors as relevant to the challenges ahead.”

And major tech companies including Google and Apple recently announced that employees are no longer required to have a degree on their resume.

Weise believes the tech industry’s move away from four-year degree backgrounds is a sign that more employers are looking toward skills-based hiring. “A lot of entrepreneurs moving away from this as a proxy for skills because it tends to prioritize the privileged,” she says.

Still, Sentz urges students and job seekers to not interpret those shifts as rationale to skip college, and that employers will continue to look for degrees. “Employers are getting realistic that a degree from an elite university is limiting. Will they still prefer the top talent? Yes. Are they willing to broaden their search? Yes. It’s both.”

Authors of the report say the study isn’t intended to defend the liberal arts, but fill a gap in research around quantifying the value of a humanities education. “In the past, liberal arts outcomes have always been harder to quantify because they lack of career specificity embedded in the program,” says Sentz. “If you look at nursing or computer science, the name of the outcome is in the program.”

The study found that unlike STEM majors, who are more likely to enter their field after graduation, liberal arts students experience rapid wage growth in their 30s and 40s, after working in their second or third job where they learn to articulate how their skills translate to technical fields, and after gaining some technical skills along the way.

“People coming from a liberal arts program who possess good human skills that translate to a variety of jobs are appealing because they are already good thinkers, and can be trained vertically on say, social media or programming,” says Sentz.

The report also notes shortcomings associated with a liberal arts education. Students who majored in the liberal arts were less likely than other majors “to report that their coursework was helpful or that they acquired important life skills.” And average earnings for students who major STEM fields are higher than those who study liberal arts.

Still, research shows liberal arts majors do well in the labor market. According to the study, 82 percent of workers with a liberal arts degree are employed, with the average full-time worker earning $55,000 annually.

The authors suggest that better translating human skills such as leadership, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking—all important pillars of a liberal arts education—will be key in signaling the value of a humanities education to employers and naysayers in an increasingly tech-driven workforce.

“If you’re going to major in liberal arts, it’s not bad,” says Sentz. But “you need to spend more time thinking about how you apply that in the market.”

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