What good does a liberal arts degree do you on the Canadian job market?

Some fields of study, particularly the arts and humanities, don’t seem to lend themselves to actual jobs after graduation. So is it worth investment of time and money that it takes to earn one? Yackler looked into it.

I was speaking at a conference put on by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario in March. The topic was “Putting the Liberal Arts to Work.” One of the big concerns from the mostly academics in the audience was that they felt their disciplines were under attack. Many felt that the public discussion on the value of a university education has become all about what jobs it can directly lead to after graduation.

This discourse naturally advantages the more practical fields of study such as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. These have predicable applications on the job market. By those standards, the arts and humanities are often regarded as frivolous or a waste of time and resources to study. This is especially true when any talk of public finding to help people pursue their education comes up.

The debate always comes down to this question: Should tax-payers’ money be going to help people studying their ‘hobbies’ that have no payoff in the real world? (Art, history, philosophy, sociology, literature, etc. are particularly the targets here.)

Sounds grim. But it’s not actually the case.

Earlier this year, the team at Workopolis and I looked at the rising cost of earning a university degree, the surplus of educated candidates on the market, and diminished returns of bachelor’s degree as a career credential. We were planning to write a white paper asking the question, “Is it still worth getting a university degree in Canada?”

I never ended up publishing, or even writing it, because the research showed that the answer wouldn’t be very interesting. Of course it is still worth obtaining a university education in Canada.

    (And from an online marketing point-of-view, there is no point putting the time and effort into producing a piece of content that reveals what everyone assumes to be true anyway. You won’t generate any media buzz, web traffic, or social reach telling people what they already know. Results matter. So we didn’t do it.)

Here’s some of what we found.

While it’s true that there have been some diminishing returns on the investment of time and money required to obtain a university degree, those who have one still fare far better on the job market than those who do not. This includes graduates who study the liberal arts.

The careers they end up in are less predictable than those of people who study the STEM disciplines, but then most careers are unpredictable. The first jobs of liberal arts grads tend to be unrelated to their studies: entry-level jobs such as sales, customer service, reception/administrative roles.

However, the skills developed in obtaining a university degree – research, writing and communications skills, presentation and teamwork, knowledge of world history and culture – pay off on the job over time.

Five years after graduation, liberal arts grads are 68 per cent more likely to have moved into management positions than their less educated coworkers in whatever sector they happen to work in.

As I said, careers are unpredictable. Most of us will end up working an average of 15 jobs in two or three completely different sectors over the course of our working lives. Technology and the requisite hard skills to keep up with it will continue to evolve increasingly rapidly. Your first job will likely have very little to do with the job you retire from.

Starting off your career with sound reasoning and problem solving abilities, honed research and writing skills, as well as some knowledge of world cultures and ideas and a love for continuous learning will open doors. It will take your career place you could not have foreseen and could not have accessed without your education.

Obtaining a university degree certainly does not have the payoff on the job market that it did twenty or thirty years ago, but the prospects for people without an education have diminished even more over that time period.

Even when it looks like there might not be a clear job directly available upon graduating with an arts or humanities degree, study what you love. Communicating, writing, and research are valuable skills across industries. Being passionate about reading, knowledge, and learning are what leaders are made of. (68 per cent of the time.)

I have a Master’s Degree in literature. My first job after graduating was in a book store. Since then I have been an advertising copy writer, a travel writer, web content manager, homepage editor of two major portals, and the chief editor of both Monster and Workopolis. All creative, challenging, lucrative jobs that I have loved.