Shortage of Staff? Hire a Liberal Arts Major

10/24/2022 6 min read
Susan Gillis Yarad is a Senior Editor at Toptal and a Correspondent for Staffing.com. An expert in the humanities and in workplace evolution, she has a certificate in Leading the Future of Work from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and has held editorial roles at Carnegie Hall and McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

In 2017, billionaire media and technology investor Mark Cuban predicted that within 10 years, there would be a greater demand for workers with liberal arts educations than for those with software or engineering degrees. In 2022, Cuban stands by his position: “I’m still a big believer in a liberal arts degree from affordable schools,” he tells Staffing.com. “Whether it's a four-year or community college, a liberal arts school is a great choice.”

Hiring trends show he may indeed be right: In a tight talent market, even HR leaders at finance and tech companies have broadened their scope beyond traditional, skill-specific qualifications to include job candidates with degrees in areas like English, philosophy, history, music, and world languages. Including employees with varied perspectives creates stronger teams, Dan Ariely, a New York Times bestselling author and professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, tells Staffing.com. “We don't need to have everybody come from the same background and have the same skills. We want variety.”

What’s more, rapidly evolving technologies will place an even higher premium on the holistic, “human” benefits of a liberal arts degree. As more jobs become automated through the rise of artificial intelligence, critical thinking skills developed in liberal arts programs may make these degrees ideal differentiators for job candidates. “In a world of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, models can't be trained without domain knowledge,” says Cuban. “Decisions on the fairness and biases of models can't be determined without an understanding of the worlds we live in.” He believes a liberal arts education allows talent to deliver the technologies we all depend on.

Margaret de Luna, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Direct to Consumer at CNBC, agrees: “Technology will take over what is black and white with systems and software,” she tells Staffing.com. “But what you do with the information still resides in the human domain. That requires problem-solving and emotional intelligence.”

Timeless Skills for an Evolving Economy

The compatibility of business and liberal arts continues to grow as jobs evolve in the modern economy. Liberal arts programs comprise a holistic education that includes oral and written communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and ethical judgment, rather than a narrower subset of technical knowledge that may eventually become outdated.

A 2021 survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that 9 out of 10 US hiring managers and company executives believe a broad study of the liberal arts is important to success in the workforce—and that liberal arts majors possess broad-based knowledge developed through a diverse educational experience.

Headline reads, “Employers Favor Attributes of a College Education That Combines Breadth and Depth of Learning.” The chart shows the benefits of a liberal arts degree and lists the following attributes as important: encouraging students to think for themselves, providing students with a well-rounded education, an emphasis on “non-technical” skills e.g. critical thinking, producing versatile students who can adapt to problems as they arise, encouraging interactions with diverse groups of people, encouraging students to engage in communities, exposure to a wide variety of academic topics and disciplines, and an emphasis on liberal arts disciplines.

The value of an education in the humanities can be seen across industries, with the business world full of notable CEOs and founders with liberal arts degrees: A 2018 US Census Bureau survey of humanities majors showed that they hold management positions more than any other occupation. The salaries of liberal arts majors also exceed STEM degree holders over time, according to David Deming, director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. As he writes in the The New York Times, “Even on narrow vocational grounds, a liberal arts education has enormous value because it builds a set of foundational capacities that will serve students well in a rapidly changing job market. A four-year college degree should prepare students for the next 40 years of working life, and for a future that none of us can imagine.”

Hiring Liberal Arts Talent

Empathy, resilience, and the ability to deal with failure are the three most important qualities to look for in a new employee with a liberal arts degree—and also predictive of an employee’s ability to rise within an organization, says Ariely. Hiring managers and talent screeners can open up their minds and talent pool by adjusting their hiring practices with these three tips:

Read Beyond the Resume

Rigid job descriptions and longstanding beliefs about degree and experience requirements can present barriers to finding the kinds of workers that companies need now. To help hiring managers break out of that mindset, encourage them to look for additional competencies, skills, and interests a candidate might have beyond their degree, including verifiable online credentials such as Google Certificates, LinkedIn skill badges, and certifications from trade organizations.

Lisa Dallenbach, Chief People Officer of theSkimm, tells Staffing.com she values such “microcredentials” when hiring. “They help me know how to place people and understand what they want to do. Putting people in positions that they're passionate about allows them to thrive. If I can go to our tech team and say, ‘Here's a candidate with a liberal arts background, but they have badges in programming and project management,’ I’ve just broken down a huge barrier.”

Many colleges are now developing their own microcredential initiatives. The University of Texas at Austin, for example, is rolling out a digital badge program to provide a way for students to highlight their distinct skill sets for prospective employers. With these, hiring managers can more easily recognize, say, a theater major who also has competencies in budgeting and project management. Ramón Rivera-Servera, dean of the university’s College of Fine Arts, tells Staffing.com he is seeing recent playwriting program graduates, for example, who are now serving as narrative consultants for Silicon Valley tech firms. “Skills that I'm developing in my [arts] students have become the centerpiece of an economic future that we cannot quite predict, that we're starting to see manifest.”

Another potential pitfall for both employers and candidates is technology that filters for degrees and work history and could exclude well-qualified candidates that don’t fit a predetermined set of criteria. According to a 2021 study by Harvard Business School and Accenture, 80% of business leaders indicated that applicant tracking systems disqualified more than half of potential candidates for middle- and high-skilled position. Broadening the experience and education requirements for open roles will yield a larger, and some experts would argue better, pool of candidates.

Dallenbach agrees. “I recently hired someone with a history degree for a project management role,” she says. “This candidate knew how to think broadly, question deeply, and think across complex situations, but what she loved was to organize and manage details. Hiring or growing talent in alignment with what they are naturally good at and understanding how to play to their strengths always wins.”

Practice High-touch Recruiting

When Sean Murray, Group Senior Vice President at the international life sciences company Eurofins, is hiring, he looks for candidates with high emotional intelligence who possess excellent problem-solving skills—a profile he calls the “corporate athlete.” Liberal arts majors make great corporate athletes, he tells Staffing.com. “They possess real skill sets that are hard to teach later on in life. Do you know how to work on a team? Can you control yourself? When you have difficult things happen, how do you handle your emotions? How do you communicate with others? All those things tend to be the differentiators between top talent and people that are in the middle or on the bottom half of the scale.”

The skills Murray seeks—empathy, storytelling, leadership, and conflict resolution—are soft skills honed in many liberal arts programs, and are fundamental for the workforce of the future, he says. In 2020, the World Economic Forum listed its prediction of the top 10 most important skills of 2025, and eight are considered soft skills.

This is a chart that lists the top 10 skills of 2025. They are grouped in four types: problem-solving, self-management, working with people, and technology use and development. Problem-solving, self-management, and working with people are skill types that are considered soft skills. Gaining these skills are part of the benefits of a liberal arts degree.

To find these corporate athletes who possess soft skills, Murray recommends that hiring managers engage in high-touch recruiting filled with lots of personal interaction and ask situational questions in screening interviews rather than waiting to do so until the final rounds. “Questions like, ‘Hey, we're looking for somebody who really has this desired quality. Can you deal with difficult situations? Tell me about a time you dealt with that.’” It is only by engaging in deeper conversations early on that a hiring manager can assess a candidate’s ability to interact thoughtfully and effectively,  Murray says.

Look for Learners

Because of the breadth of their study, liberal arts majors understand how to learn and problem solve across a wide span of topics. Employers can then take these adaptable candidates and teach them the specific skills required for the role they need to fill—ending up with an ideal fit. Murray advises employers to screen for learning agility with cognitive ability assessments and by asking open-ended questions.

With the rapid pace of societal advances, roles that will need to be filled in five years may not even exist right now. It will be the agile thinkers and lifelong learners who will excel in their existing positions and have the capability to learn new skills as their jobs evolve.

After recently having difficulty filling roles on her team, de Luna says she advised her hiring managers to take a different approach: “Take a step back and be willing to look down different avenues. Be willing to give a little on specific skill sets and degrees and find out if they are interested in learning. Can they communicate? How would they approach a problem? I think in the long run, you end up with a better candidate, because it takes only a couple of months to teach specific skills. It's harder to teach communication. It's harder to teach someone how to problem solve.”

Employees who will be most successful in this turbulent time and the age of AI will be critical thinkers, team leaders, clear communicators, culturally sensitive, skilled writers, and lifelong learners. Now is the perfect time for employers across industries to take a closer look at liberal arts majors.

Susan Gillis Yarad is a Senior Editor at Toptal and a Correspondent for Staffing.com. An expert in the humanities and in workplace evolution, she has a certificate in Leading the Future of Work from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and has held editorial roles at Carnegie Hall and McGraw-Hill Higher Education.