Jan 16 2019

Universities Need to Prepare Liberal Arts Students for a Tech-Enabled World

Employers across sectors are hunting for employees with both technological savvy and communication skills.

As automation and other technological advances change the way industries do work, employers are finding they need employees equipped with a mix of technical and communication skills. 

This is a noticeable shift. Students graduating with STEM majors have, until recently, been seen as more marketable than their liberal arts counterparts, with some experts even wondering whether liberal arts programs are worth maintaining.

Yet new evidence shows liberal arts majors are snapping up jobs across sectors, even in the tech sphere, according to Robot Ready: Human+ Skills for the Future of Work, a report from the Strada Institute for the Future of Work

“Between 2010 and 2013, the growth of liberal arts majors entering the technology industry from undergrad outpaced that of computer science and engineering majors by 10 percent,” Strada authors write. “Companies are looking for intellectual dexterity just as much as they need technical expertise.”

This trend continues today, incentivizing liberal arts colleges and programs at larger universities to incorporate lessons in hard and soft skills. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Universities invest in ways to close the cybersecurity skills gap.

Liberal Arts Students Learn to Work with Robots, Not Against Them

The introduction of automation tools in the workplace means certain work responsibilities will move away from humans, shifting the focus on what skills are necessary. 

“Future workers will need to flex their human skills — their higher order mental capacities and ability to work with ideas and think divergently — to distinguish themselves alongside the miraculous machines of the future,” the report’s authors write. 

The anticipation of robots and humans working in tandem means not only will employees need to work on their communication skills, but on their familiarity with robotics and AI as well.

Many universities already have the capabilities for AI integration, using tools like IBM Watson to help with admissions or Microsoft Azure for personalized learning

In the classroom, however, some liberal arts educators may not have the expertise in emerging technologies to pass along to their students.

Microsoft executives have affirmed the company’s commitment to bringing liberal arts graduates into tech, and the tech giant has released training modules to teach students how to navigate their AI platforms.

"If AI is to reach its potential in serving humans, then every engineer will need to learn more about the liberal arts and every liberal arts major will need to learn more about engineering," Microsoft President Brad Smith and Executive Vice President of AI and Research Harry Shum wrote in their book The Future Computed.

Combine Data Analytics for More Effective Communication

Industries are eager for employees proficient in data science as information becomes an increasingly powerful currency across sectors. 

Among companies in areas that usually hire liberal arts graduates, like journalism or marketing, “a strong job candidate would need to demonstrate several more technical skills in information technology (IT), business, or design in addition to the core skills of writing and communication,” Strada authors write. 

“[J]ournalism is becoming almost an IT field with an increased need for skills and analytics capabilities like search engine optimization, JavaScript, CSS, HTML, and Google analytics.”

Data science is easily translated into liberal arts courses. For example, Boise State University now offers a degree specifically designed around data science for the liberal arts

Other universities, like the University of Houston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are building facilities designed specifically for data science exploration in both STEM and other fields. 

The most important thing, according to the Strada authors, is for educators to understand where the modern workforce is headed, and to adjust their curricula to reflect the skills that employers will be looking for.


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