Home » Fall 2010Feature

What Employers Want

by Mardy Fones 3 Comments

Why a liberal arts education matters in tough economic times.

The battle erupts every time the economy nosedives: skills training versus education. With unemployment high and the future uncertain, should students focus on a trade or a broad-based education?

Employers, corporate recruiters and education experts say short-term thinking will cost you in job growth and lifetime income potential.

Their preference? The liberal arts education.

Long on critical thinking, writing, communication, problem solving, and development of analysis and synthesis of data, a liberal arts education fosters a capacity for lifelong professional success.

“Especially in bad economic times, the argument about skills training versus a liberal arts education emerges,” says Sarah Igo, associate professor of history and co-director of the National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education. “But technology and skills become outmoded quickly. What doesn’t is the ability to think on your feet, assess problems critically and develop innovative solutions. These are the foundations of a liberal arts education.”

Kenan Arkan, BA’04, MBA’06, and a member of Goldman Sachs Private Wealth Management service, agrees. “Anyone can be taught to run numbers,” Arkan says. “But what you can’t do on the job is teach someone how to think about the world, to have intellectual curiosity.”

Arkan says while his MBA might boost his credibility in the business world, it is his undergraduate degree in political science that fuels his professional growth. “I was working with a client starting a bank focusing on southern European customers. From my classes at Vanderbilt, we were able to talk about the historical ties people in that region have and what their motivations to patronize a bank would be,” he says. “To be successful, you have to understand people’s motivations, not just their financial needs. Fundamentally, my job is about asking the right questions and then using that information to help a client find a solution.”

Arkan, who also serves as a member of Goldman Sachs’ recruitment team, says the company recruits liberal arts graduates like him. “We want people who have a global perspective, who have an interest in the world around them, people who have depth and breadth and aren’t constrained by their education…people who speak and think intelligently,” Arkan says.

Communicate and Think

John Kuhnle, PhD’71, is a recruiter specializing in educational placements for the executive placement firm, Korn Ferry. He says skills are great, but people who lack the ability to communicate intelligently lose out.

“You can’t distinguish between clear writing and clear thinking,” says Kuhnle, who earned his doctorate in English. “Oral and written skills are the passports to success. Absent those, people are permanently hampered and their careers thwarted.”

A recent study for the Association of American Colleges and Universities affirms Kuhnle and Arkan’s experiences. Surveying more than 300 companies about the qualities they seek in employees, researchers reported:

  • 90 percent are asking employees to take on more responsibilities and to use a broader set of skills.
  • 81 percent believe students who are able to research and conduct evidence-based analysis pay off.
  • 84 percent endorse requiring senior projects as a way to prepare new graduates for work success.

The survey found employers want people who have a wide range of skills and higher levels of learning to meet the increasingly complex demands of the workplace. A majority of those surveyed encourage colleges to emphasize written and oral communication; critical thinking and analytic reasoning; the application of knowledge and skills in real-world settings; problem solving; ethical decision making; and teamwork skills.

What Matters

“A liberal arts education teaches you how to think and work outside settled patterns. It produces doubt, examination and skepticism,” Igo says. “That’s the way we reform our world and develop new ideas.”

As co-director of National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, Igo leads research and discussions about the liberal arts. Forum membership consists of more than 70 rising academic stars selected in a nationwide search of the sciences, social sciences and humanities at top American research universities. The prestigious three-year program seeks to identify and prepare a core national group of emerging academic leaders to guide the future of the liberal arts.

“The real contributions to our society come from understanding the ways in which social and political systems interact, of critical thinking and skeptical questioning,” Igo says. “These qualities produce new knowledge, the ability to adapt and improve, to communicate, to analyze and to make ethical judgments that impact society.”

Proven Leaders

To power up their success, liberal arts majors should enhance their potential with practical internships and leadership experience, the experts say.

As a student, Arkan interned with companies ranging from Smith Barney and USAirways to Goldman Sachs. He’s adamant that the workplace experience and leadership opportunities he had set the stage for his current job.

“We want people who have a global perspective, who have an interest in the world around them, people who have depth and breadth and aren’t constrained by their education.”

–Kenan Arkan, BA’04, MBA’06

“Candidates with more experience in an actual corporate role have the upper hand,” Arkan says. “Even if the experience is in an unrelated sector, candidates can have success (in job interviews) by contrasting their previous role with what they are applying for to show a depth of understanding.”

Companies that look to the College of Arts and Science for new employees say leadership experience is key. “We look for people who have taken the lead, whether it’s in an internship or a community activity,” says Keturah Akida Henderson, a recruiter with Deloitte. “We like people who are versatile, who can use technology, yes, but who perform well in front of the client.”

Deloitte’s preference for liberal arts graduates emerges from their ability to analyze, to be proactive, and above all, to learn. “We train new graduates. We don’t expect them to come in knowing advanced software,” Henderson says. “What we want is people with a hunger for learning—people who can understand client problems and come up with ways to solve them that are creative, focused and goal-driven.”

Disciplined Problem Solvers

Personal and professional discipline is another employment-tipping factor. A high GPA is expected, but advantage goes to candidates with broad and fulfilling interests. If job candidates are also marathon runners or have long volunteer records in community service, that makes them stand out.

“We’re always looking for evidence of discipline,” says Stevie Toepke, director of recruiting for Harris Williams, one of the nation’s largest mergers and acquisitions advisers.

“A good GPA plus a full resume tells us you can balance a lot and set priorities. We’re looking for well-rounded candidates.”

During job interviews with both Harris Williams and Deloitte, candidates are presented with case studies and asked to talk about how they’d handle particular business situations. This assesses the candidates’ ability to think on their feet and problem solve creatively, Toepke says.

Harris Williams’ hires face a steep learning curve on the business side, but Toepke says liberal arts graduates are positioned to take the new material and make it their own.

“An ideal candidate for us is one who has a strong educational foundation plus the great classes that come with a liberal arts degree,” Toepke says.

illustration credit: ImageZoo Illustration/Veer


  • Laura said:

    Although liberal arts students rarely think of themselves as well-prepared for careers in business and leadership, in actuality they have precisely the experience and knowledge needed for these positions. Resources for students who’d like to know more about how to apply their liberal arts education to future careers in business and leadership can be found at http://www.LiberalArtsAdvantage.com.

  • Andrew Koivuniemi said:

    “But technology and skills become outmoded quickly. What doesn’t is the ability to think on your feet, assess problems critically and develop innovative solutions. These are the foundations of a liberal arts education.”

    Curious proposition, Sarah Igo. However, something tells me you never spent much time around Vanderbilt’s many diverse and innovative engineers. These are exactly the “skills” we’re explicitly “trained” in. Having done both, I know engineers are better prepared to identify important problems and to work systematically and creatively in order to address them, be they technical or personal. This article seems to be predicated on the simplistic notion that we engineers are illiterate, stuffy number crunchers who fidget with our slide rulers as they stumble over our words. Tsk. I’d expect a less self-serving and prejudiced analysis from people with liberal arts degrees.

    Andrew Koivuniemi: BE ’07, Summa Cum Laude. Majors: Biomedical Engineering, Philosophy. Currently completing an MD/PhD degree.

  • Andrew Koivuniemi said:

    Correction: ‘…as “we” (not “they”) stumble over our words.’ Yep i see the irony.