News Column

Job Prospects Look up for Liberal Arts Grads

July 1, 2014

Scott Kraus, The Morning Call

Artists (file photo)
Artists (file photo)

June 29--In recent years, liberal arts graduates have wandered an employment desert.

Hiring was sluggish and most available entry-level jobs were going to students majoring in business or technology fields.

But things are starting to look up. Graduates in disciplines such as visual and performing arts, communications and history saw more job offers in 2014 than last year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Forty percent of education majors received job offers in 2014, compared with 29 percent last year, for example.

"Coming out of the recession in the first couple of years, 2011, 2012, 2013, the improvement was all in majors like computer science, engineering, accounting, even business administration," said Edwin J. Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

While a recovery in the public sector, especially education, has boosted the hiring prospects of liberal arts majors, students graduating with degrees in more practical, technical fields still fared better, according to the association's annual survey.

About 43 percent of visual and performing arts graduates received full-time job offers this spring, up 15 percentage points from 2013, but they still trailed accounting majors, 63 percent of whom had jobs lined up at graduation.

Muhlenberg College thinks it has come up with what may be the beginnings of a solution for closing that gap: a new program that provides history, theater and dance students and other liberal arts majors with a crash course in the number-crunching, profit-driven ways of business.

"One goal is to ensure students understand the applicability of what they have done in liberal arts education to working in the outside world," said Scott Koerwer, a marketing entrepreneur, special assistant to President Randy Helm and executive director of the college's new Summer Business Institute.

For years, liberal arts schools have been grappling with how to better prepare their broadly educated, idealistic students for an entry-level job market, which the Federal Reserve reported in January is the toughest for new graduates in two decades.

The recession exacerbated the issue, as prospective students and their parents began giving added weight to future employability, forcing colleges to give those efforts higher priority.

"There is tons of pressure on everyone to make sure that given the amount people pay to go to college, they are really getting the appropriate value from it," said Andy Chan, Wake Forest University's vice president of personal and career development.

The North Carolina university is leading the wave of colleges rethinking how they offer career services. That process started two years ago when Wake Forest hosted a national conference called Rethinking Success to examine the value of a liberal arts education in the 21st century.

In her keynote address at the conference, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- herself a political science major -- said, "Sometimes the most successful institutions are the last ones to adapt to new realities, and so our challenge is to adapt to the new challenges without losing the core of who we are."

One approach gaining popularity is to integrate career preparation throughout the college experience, Chan said. Easton's Lafayette College has been doing that with a four-year career exploration program called Gateway that provides internships, networking opportunities, links between academic majors and professionals in their future careers, and help with interviews and job searches.

A 2013 study by technology staffing firm Burning Glass Technologies determined that liberal arts graduates can improve their job prospects and salary outlook by adding certain high-demand technical skills that include training in marketing, sales, social media and data analysis.

Muhlenberg's Summer Business Institute offers only an overview of many of those topics, but some in the program think just having it on their resume will give them an advantage over other liberal arts grads.

The two-week program, which costs $699, includes introductions to accounting, marketing, analytics, human resources and communications. It puts students in teams to work on business simulations and gives them tips on interviewing, dressing for the business world and networking.

For Margot Steinberg, a junior dance major with minors in math and religious studies, the Summer Business Institute provided insight into an aspect of the arts world that's not always obvious from the stage. That insight has enabled her to envision more possibilities.

"I'm realizing there is a business element to the arts I would be happy with," she said.

Dance organizations need people to oversee fundraising and development, and to manage charitable support. But if Steinberg were granted one wish for her career, it wouldn't be to work with numbers and spreadsheets.

"I'd want to be a choreographer and dance teacher," she said.

Many of the students in the program, recent graduates in majors such as political science, international relations, dance and theater, said the institute has given them a bridge between what might be -- a career in the arts -- and what might have to be -- a job that pays the bills while they pursue the dream.

The strength of the liberal arts degree is that it gives students perspective and a balanced education that will serve them well down the road as they pursue and mature in their careers, said Phil Gardner, executive director of Career Network at Michigan State University and director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute. Students just have trouble getting a foot in the door.

"Over time, the liberal arts students do just as well as other students. That's the ironic part about it," Wake Forest's Chan said.

'Have a linchpin'

Zach Kronish, a 21-year-old senior theater major with a minor in English, hopes the courses he's taking through the Muhlenberg program will help in his entrepreneurial pursuits.

Kronish has his own photography business, which he thinks will benefit from the new skills he is learning, but he also entertains hopes of working in publishing or writing books.

"It is a highly competitive world out there," Kronish said. "This course with the Summer Business Institute will help us compete in the job market."

There is evidence that liberal arts graduates benefit by adding business expertise on top of their broad-based degrees.

"They leave probably talent-rich and preparation-poor in many ways," Gardner said. "They need some technical grounding. A lot of the liberal arts do a great job of augmenting and extending and making people flexible and adaptable. But you have to have a linchpin."

Laura Haffner, area president for Wells Fargo bank's Lehigh Valley region, said what Muhlenberg is teaching definitely won't hurt.

A former Moravian College education major, Haffner heads a group of retail banks for Wells Fargo and participated in the Summer Business Institute. She and her staff gave the students an overview of the banking business and some tips on personal money and credit management.

While Wells Fargo hires plenty of business and finance majors, Haffner has found liberal arts graduates to be good fits for a rapidly changing and diversifying field of retail banking.

"They are more flexible in their learning styles and in their capacity to work with other personalities," she said.

Just enrolling in a program like the Summer Business Institute shows a level of initiative and basic competency in the language of business that will serve them well as they look for work, Haffner added.

When it comes to future aspirations, the students in Muhlenberg's program are all over the map.

Nathan Frick, a 21-year-old neuroscience graduate, needs something to help him compete for work while he readies applications for graduate school. He wants to be a psychiatrist.

"Having the basics of the business world has been very helpful," Frick said.

Julia Cagin, 22, is using the institute to help decide if business law would be an appealing career option. She has a degree in political science and plans to study for the law school exam over the summer.

"I'm learning a lot about business that I didn't have an opportunity to do in my classes," she said. "I'm optimistic. I know the law field is a little tight. I'm hoping four years from now there will be more positions opening up."

Matt McAlister, who wants to run his own theater company, sees a future where business is a necessary evil.

"It has become a lot easier for small groups of people to start a theater group together," said McAlister, 21. "There are so many startups these days."

He's willing to do what it takes to pay the bills in the meantime.

"I am confident in my ability to find a job," McAlister said. "I have worked construction and in retail and I am happy to do those jobs."

Haffner, who dreamed in college of teaching elementary school, told the students not to rule out the world of commerce as more than just a temporary way to make ends meet.

"I said, OK, I'll try this banking thing for the summer," she recalled. "Now, here it is 28 years later. It's great to have a plan, but it is also important that you're not so focused on your plan that you miss out on an opportunity."

scott.kraus@mcall.com

610-820-6745

SALARIES SNAPSHOT

Starting pay, Class of 2014:

-- Foreign language and literature: $46,900

-- English language and literature: $42,200

-- Liberal arts & sciences/general studies: $41,600

-- Political Science/government: $41,600

-- History: $40,600

-- Psychology: $37,900

-- Social work: $36,700

-- Sociology: $36,300

-- Visual and performing arts: $36,300

-- Criminal justice and corrections: $36,200

Source: April 2014 Salary Survey, National Association of Colleges and Employers

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(c)2014 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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Original headline: Prepping liberal arts students for the job market



Source: (c)2014 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)


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