These days, much greater turbulence and turnover exists in the workforce than occurred 50 years ago in the fledgling days of the College of Liberal Studies. Every day we learn of new economic necessities and priorities that result in mergers and consolidations, which often result in downsizing, rightsizing, and layoffs. This is happening not only in the private sector but the public sector as well. Witness, for instance, the significant cuts the military is making today, cuts that have affected personnel, deployments, and voluntary education programs.
It was seemingly only a generation ago that business columnists were shaking their heads when employees were forced to change jobs four or five times over the course of their careers, a phenomenon that clearly indicated that the luxury of “lifetime employment” had become obsolete. According to the Wall Street Journal(2008), the average American, by age 42, will have changed jobs 11 times. Some of these job changes are the result of layoffs, certainly. But in many instances, the jobs themselves have become transformed—computerized, combined with other functions and responsibilities, etc. For employees to find the “right fit,” they need to be equipped in terms of their education and training and skill sets (not to mention their temperament!).
A report issued in April of this year revealed some interesting findings about the current expectations of employers regarding what they seek in the way of employees’ skills and knowledge. In fact, and with some pleasure, I noted that this research study strongly endorses the values and curricula that make up every degree program offered through the University of Oklahoma’s College of Liberal Studies.
Some 80 percent of the employers surveyed agreed that the ideal job candidates would acquire in their college careers “broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.” Such a view suggests that employees educated in the liberal arts have the kind of breadth that will enable them to interact effectively with others, to integrate various points of view, and to see the “big picture.”
This national, online-based study by Hart Research Associates sampled responses from 318 employers. The employers represented organizations with 25 or more employees and whose new hires hold either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree.
Innovation as a Priority
The survey, conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, revealed that “innovation is a priority for employers” in the current economy. Moreover, survey respondents preferred that prospective employees were critical thinkers, effective communicators, and complex problems solvers rather than simply individuals who possess an undergraduate degree in a particular field, even if it was in a desirable field. These employers are demanding relevance; they want their employees to be able to “conduct research and use evidence-based analysis” and to be able to “apply their learning in real-world settings.”
My experience is that employers are seeking employees who, in the jargon of the past, have a head on their shoulders, who can think for themselves, are pragmatic, have the ability to sift through information and synthesize, establish priorities, make effective decisions based on the best evidence they have accumulated and analyzed, and then can communicate their conclusions and actions effectively in both writing and in business forums.
Unfortunately, in recent years college graduates of particular disciplines approach problem-solving in fairly narrow ways and are not equipped to be both innovative and broad thinkers. However, some 80 percent of the employers surveyed agreed that the ideal job candidates would acquire in their college careers “broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.” Such a view suggests that employees educated in the liberal arts have the kind of breadth that will enable them to interact effectively with others, to integrate various points of view, and to see the “big picture.”
The Relevance of Liberal Arts
The responses cited in the study seem to fly in the face of some recent reports that suggest many organizations are seeking employees who have been trained in specific disciplinary areas. Often this “evidence” is offered to indicate that the liberal arts curriculum is no longer relevant for employers—or employees.
We believe firmly that CLS is a game changer for our students, most of whom currently hold full-time jobs. They view their education as an opportunity for professional and personal growth and transformation and we in the College are delighted to play a part in assisting them.
In reality, the survey clearly indicates that employers want both in their new hires and existing employees: field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of knowledge and understanding. Fully 55 percent of the respondents stated this preference. Typically the kind of “broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences” translates into effective communication (expressed both orally and in writing), critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and interpersonal skills that will help ensure new employees make for a good fit with employees already in place and will lead to prospective management and leadership roles.
Those of us who have long advocated the advantages of the liberal studies curricula have argued that programs such those offered by OU’s CLS better prepare students for successful careers. The problems and issues faced by managers and supervisors today are often complex and call for interdisciplinary solutions. Further, individuals with liberal studies backgrounds are usually those with a greater appreciation for continuing their education beyond mere degree acquisition. The employers surveyed in this Hart Research study also indicated that they preferred, almost unanimously (94 percent), those workers with a “demonstrated capacity for professional development and continued new learning.” In other words, they want employees who love to learn.
Love of learning has been a hallmark of our students from the College’s first days. CLS students have frequently expressed this view in their assignments and in personal comments to faculty members and administrators. And our graduates echo how important their experience has been in CLS.
CLS as Game Changer
CLS is founded on a commitment to interdisciplinary learning and to serving the educational needs of working adults who are engaged in a wide range of careers. We have now been at work serving these students for more than half a century and we look forward to continuing to help them in the years ahead. We believe firmly that CLS is a game changer for our students, most of whom currently hold full-time jobs. They view their education as an opportunity for professional and personal growth and transformation and we in the College are delighted to play a part in assisting them.
James P. Pappas, Ph.D.
Vice President for Outreach and
Dean, College of Liberal Studies
(P.S.—Of particular interest to me about the survey noted above is the finding that 55 percent of employers surveyed especially valued employees with a “knowledge of global cultures, histories, values, religions, and social systems.” One of our newest degree programs provides a broad set of skills for equipping individuals for the global environment in which we all now live.)
Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017.