Almost four years ago, Forbes published a cover story about an emerging trend in the tech industry: recruiting liberal arts graduates.
The cover star, Stewart Butterfield, received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy and cofounded photo-sharing site Flickr and Slack, the workplace instant-messaging platform dazzling Silicon Valley. The tech unicorn has raised over $1.2 billion over the last ten years and will make its shares public in a direct listing Thursday.
Butterfield told George Anders, the story’s author, that studying philosophy taught him two things: “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true—like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces—until they realized that it wasn’t true.”
The story hit a nerve, amassing over 1.2 million views online. Anders went on to publish a book, You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education. Outlets such as The Washington Post and Harvard Business Review weighed in on the relevance of liberal arts degrees in today’s increasingly tech-driven economy.
Universities say that tech companies haven’t stopped hiring liberal arts graduates—if anything, they’re recruiting more. While these graduates still populate jobs in expected fields like communications, marketing and human resources, they’ve also starting to occupy the jobs once reserved for STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, majors.
Forbes Alex Konrad
“I’ve come across quite a few students that are in a typical Letters and Science subject—could be poli-sci, psych—that are actually software development engineers,” said Sue Harbour, senior associate director for UC Berkeley’s career center. The university’s College of Letters and Science, dedicated to the liberal arts, represents 75% of the university’s undergraduates.
Demand for employees with liberal arts degrees extends from entry level to management. Take Slack’s leadership. About 50% graduated with non-STEM or business degrees, according to its published employee biographies. Besides Butterfield’s degrees in philosophy, most majored in subjects like psychology, political science and English.
Ironically, there may be job safety in what was once considered a pointless degree. The jobs most in demand today, like engineering and computer science, could potentially become the most easily automated jobs in the future, according to a 2018 report from the Strada Institute for the Future of Work and Emsi. Now, the most attractive recruits will possess soft skills—like social and emotional capabilities, providing expertise, coaching and developing others, and creativity — that machines can’t replicate, researchers wrote. In other words, the skills Butterfield said he learned from his philosophy degrees.
The researchers also found that the number of liberal arts graduates entering the tech industry is growing faster than computer science or engineering ones. Colleges have encouraged this—for example, Stanford University’s career center has hosted a popular industry mixer called Tech for Liberal Arts for the last few years, said E.J. Miranda, a Stanford spokesperson.
Tech companies also aren’t necessarily looking at the candidate’s degree. Of the 101 jobs currently open at Slack’s San Francisco headquarters, for instance, roughly 40% don’t list an education requirement, according to job postings on its website. Those that do tend to ask for STEM or business degrees, but many of these engineering positions, such as Senior Front-End Engineer or Community Engineer, just require experience. A Slack recruiter declined to comment due to the quiet period surrounding the IPO.
Researchers noted it’s not enough to just have writing and communication talents—graduates in fields like journalism also need additional skills in information technology, business and design to stand out from other applicants.
Berkeley liberal arts students often take elective classes, join clubs or pursue a minor to diversify their skill set and develop these more technical skills, Harbour said. Sixty percent of 2018 Letters and Science graduates reported being employed full-time after graduation, and 19% reported going to grad school, Harbour said (only about 35% of students fill out the postgrad survey and the data doesn’t track who works in tech).
“Your major is not what you do. Your major is what you study,” Harbour said. “What you do is something you enjoy doing on a daily basis and you get paid for it.”
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