Liberal arts and tech

Terrific Forbes article by George Anders entitled “That Useless Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket”. Its a must read for anyone interested in education or economic development.

Conventional wisdom among folks working in either area has become that the only four year degrees or more that are needed by the economy and provide a decent standard of living are STEM degrees. And if you are not going to go into one of those fields you would be better off going to a community college to learn a skilled trade. Anders shows how inaccurate that conventional wisdom is.

Along with health care, the tech industry has been the driver of the case for the emphasis on STEM. Turns out the tech industry is hiring more with liberal arts degrees than they are engineers. You read that right: the tech industry needs more workers with what conventional wisdom has labelled “useless” liberal arts skills than those with STEM skills. Anders found:

This summer’s fierce race to beef up sales teams is being played out every day in tech companies’ hiring notices. Employee-software specialist Workday has 60 open positions in sales, exceeding the 51 in technology development. Ride-sharing king Uber needs 427 more brand ambassadors, partner-support reps and other operations wranglers, compared with just 168 more engineers. Even Facebook–run by die-hard engineer Mark Zuckerberg–has 225 openings right now for sales and business development specialists, compared with just 146 for software developers.

Anders describes the reason that liberal arts skills are more in demand than STEM skills in the technology industry this way:

Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger.  Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers–and make progress seem pleasant.

Think of the ways the automobile revolution of the 1920s created enormous numbers of jobs for people who helped fit cars into everyday life: marketers, salesmen, driving instructors, road crews and so on. Something similar is afoot today. MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in a recent book, The Second Machine Age, that today’s tech wave will inspire a new style of work in which tech takes care of routine tasks so that people can concentrate on what mortals do best: generating creative ideas and actions in a data-rich world.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2022 some 1 million more Americans will enter the workforce as educators. Another 1.1 million newcomers will earn a living in sales. Such opportunities won’t be confined to remedial teaching or department store cashiers. Each wave of tech will create fresh demand for high-paid trainers, coaches, workshop leaders and salespeople. By contrast, software engineers’ ranks will grow by 279,500, or barely 3% of overall job growth.


One can make a strong case that the economy needs those with liberal arts skills more so than ever. And an even stronger case for job seekers trying to prepare for a forty year career in an economy where jobs and occupations are increasingly unstable because of globalization and technology. One can make a strong case that STEM skills may be among the easiest to outsource and/or automate. So even those who are doing well today in STEM related occupations are almost certainly going to need liberal arts skills to be able to adapt to a constantly changing labor marker.

I laid out the case for the liberal arts in my 2014 Alma commencement address. For those wanting to explore more deeply this important topic there are three books worth reading:

  • The Second Machine Age mentioned above by Anders
  • Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind
  • Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education

I have written about each here, here and here.



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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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