Spotlight for Career Services Professionals
While the liberal arts equip students with many of the skills employers seek in new hires, these graduates often have trouble identifying and articulating how their skills and experiences will transfer to the workplace.
To begin clearing this hurdle, those who advise these students need to help them break down other obstacles. Chief among them is the perception that liberal arts majors have no value to employers.
“The perception is that through the liberal arts, there’s no connection to a career and no clear path to career success,” says Karyn McCoy, director, employer and college relations in the DePaul University
career center. “The rhetoric is that liberal arts degrees don’t lead to jobs upon graduation.
“The reality is that pursuing a liberal arts degree helps build the skills that are most in demand from employers—communication, teamwork, analytical skills, and more—and teaches the flexibility needed to not only succeed in getting a first job, but to succeed throughout their careers in a rapidly changing workplace environment.”
Sue Gordon, director of career development and pre-health career adviser in the American University career center, points out that studies support this.
“Data show that people who pursue liberal arts degrees have successful careers,” Gordon says. “The career-specific majors may have quicker employment on the front end, but the liberal arts have a higher career trajectory.”
Gordon and McCoy say that employers value liberal arts graduates’ ability to be flexible and adaptable, that they are trained to think more broadly, and in a rapidly changing world of work, they have the ability to see things through other contexts.
“Students pursuing these degrees also having the courage to voice their opinions,” McCoy adds. “They bring the skills that allow them to contribute in different ways.”
But when it comes to articulating their value to employers, liberal arts students often falter.
“At a very basic level, they tend to not understand their value to employers,” Gordon says. “Whether, they are in an interview or an informal setting, they aren’t comfortable, mostly because they hear a lot of negative messaging about themselves. We need to help them to understand that what they have learned in college is what employers want.”
McCoy agrees, adding that these students don’t understand where they fall short a lot of times.
“They talk about participating in a student organization, course, or study abroad program with an employer, but stop short of saying how those experiences relate to the job,” McCoy says. “Part of it is that they don’t fully understand the skills they gained and the connection to what employers are looking for.”
Gordon continues: “We have to be intentional in assuming our students don’t know this. We need to have materials on how they can think critically, and how they can highlight their skills and value to employers, whether it is on their resumes, or during interviews or networking. In addition, we need to have programming that addresses this.”
American University and DePaul University are helping students articulate their skills through programs they developed. Through “The American University Skills Initiative,” students enhance their academic and professional skills through course work, educational programs and events, and career development opportunities.
Based on the vital skills employers want, the career center has materials available to students through a web-based repository of information and teaches about them during classroom presentations. These skills include:
- Oral communication
- Written communication
- Critical thinking/analytical reasoning
- Decision making and ethical judgment
- Quantitative/applied technology
One of the classroom exercises asks students to describe the skills they gained from their major. The presenter asks students to think about their capstones or a favorite project from a certain major, then take 10 minutes to write a project description, including the specific skills they are using and what they have accomplished.
Meanwhile, the “DePaul Transferable Skills Initiative” has defined skills and grouped them in the following categories:
- Universal Skills
- Creativity and Communication
- Leadership and Teamwork
- Technical and Information
To help give students guidance on identifying and articulating these key skills, the career center developed a two-credit course titled “Uncovering Your Skills.” Launched in spring 2014 and targeted at sophomores, the course is gaining momentum, with 230 students completing it to date.
During the course, students are asked to think about their classes, jobs, and campus/volunteer activities, and write a sentence or two for each competency as verifiable qualifications for a job. After students work through the matrix of evidence of how they built their skills, they do a presentation on these skills and how they relate to the work force.
“We’re trying to create a new lens for them to look through,” McCoy explains. “We need to get the message across so they can understand that as result of taking a course or having an experience, they have certain skills that translate to the workplace.”
Another way to do this, she says, is by working with faculty to help highlight the skills that students have the opportunity to build during their courses.
“We started to do this through a skills matrix developed in partnership with academic staff who are beginning to work with us to identify the top transferable skills students develop in their programs,” McCoy explains.
Gordon suggests that when career services professionals address this with faculty, they should make sure faculty understand the goal.
“Faculty can get edgy when we mention skills and careers because they can feel that we’re pushing them away from education and toward career readiness,” she says. “But, there is no inherent conflict between the two concepts. We’re trying to support them and respond to the public and political rhetoric around the value of a degree.”
Sue Gordon and Karyn McCoy presented “Transferable Skills in Liberal Arts: Helping Students Articulate Their Value” at NACE16.