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Don’t be so quick to dismiss that liberal arts degree

9,000+ graduate during all campus commencement
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

I earned a degree in English from a liberal arts college in Boston. I have joked often that this degree qualified me to do nothing. So I advised my children that if they followed in my footsteps, I would disown them because they would be doomed to a career as a “greeter” at Walmart. And, I would have been absolutely 120 percent wrong.

“For students chasing lasting wealth, the best choice of a college major is less obvious than you think”, says David Deming, a director at the Harvard Kennedy School. Deming has done some significant study and he finds that for “a first job,” computer science and engineering do give you the early lead in revenue creation. But by the age of 40, the students of philosophy, history and English have caught up.

Ironically it turns out that the original STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students end up being marginalized and challenged by a whole new cadre of STEM students coming right behind them who have learned the new technologies and are competing to take your job. To quote the baseball great, Satchel Paige, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” On the other hand history is immutable, the war of 1812 will always occur in 1812.

Right out of the gate, the nerds win big time, averaging $62,000 versus $45,000 for the history major. But hang on — the puzzle in the piece is that the “soft skills,” like the tortoise and the hare, become more in demand over time and “tend to have the most lasting impact in a wide variety of careers.”

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Deming quotes a statistic that says by age 40 the average salary of all male college graduates today is $118,870, while social science and history majors come in at $131,154. This is somewhat skewed by the high-paying jobs in management, business and law. Deming makes a persuasive case about the increasing value of those soft skills over the long run, as the knowledge worker morphs into leadership roles in management and business entrepreneurship. (In the long run we’re all dead anyway).

My mantra to support the poets and not just the quants coming from Deming’s data (and my personal belief) that writing and communication skills, problem solving and the ability to work in a team are the keys to success. And, while I know that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” will not ensure you a beach house in Del Mar, I am absolutely convinced that your life will be better, more satisfying and more deeply connected to humanity if you know that Shakespeare is not just a fishing reel.

However, there is some darkness here as well. The liberal arts education has as its goal the development of the “whole person,” but the cost of the classic four-year college today certainly is a factor that mitigates and gives pause to that goal. There is economic reality, the cost is the cost and I do not believe in the Tooth Fairy. This then opens and encourages a discussion for consideration of trade schools, for community colleges, for apprentice programs.

I have written about the importance of STEAM, where the “A” stands for the arts. I want to hire people who have at least wandered into an art museum (even if by mistake), and have hobbies beyond computer games. Taking time to expand your intellectual universe will give you breadth and prepare you to become an even better leader.

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We know that EQ (emotional quotient) is critical to being an effective CEO. Lack of it will come back to haunt you. Witness WeWork and the fall of Adam Neumann, the CEO. I remind myself and my young charges that it is a long race. The skills you need on lap one are different than the ones you need on lap 238. Here is the kicker — we know what we know now, but it is for absolute sure that we do not know what the world, technology, our family, the stuff that defines life will look like in 40 years. I vote for the Swiss Army knife approach to education and career preparation. You may not need the corkscrew immediately, but there is a bottle of wine somewhere down the road, and that tool will definitely come in handy.

Rule No. 631: NASA and MacGyver do not leave home without one.

Neil Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to Neil at neil@blackbirdv.com.


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