Why You Need More Liberal Arts in Your Talent Pool

July 12th, 2017
Jon-Mark Sabel
Recruiting Teams

Will advances in automation technology and artificial intelligence (AI) wipe out jobs or reinvigorate them? Experts in the space tend to disagree.  Some, like Elon Musk, believe that the current wave of automation tech will devour so many jobs it will necessitate a universal basic income. Others, like Josh Bersin, contend that the automation of mundane tasks will free up existing human workers to pursue more creative and “essentially human” endeavors.  If AI plays out like Elon Musk and others think it will, the automation of all jobs might be the least of our concerns. In situations where there are two hypothetical outcomes, it’s generally better to prepare for the one you have control over, rather than fret about a pending apocalypse.  So for the sake of this piece, we’ll assume that Josh Bersin is more correct than Elon Musk - and automation in the foreseeable future will lead to a focus on “essentially human” skills like creativity, listening, and empathy. 

This Underutilized Talent Pool is an “Essentially Human” Goldmine

Every once in awhile (normally right after college graduation), liberal arts education comes into the news. In many cases the coverage is negative: “how could anyone expect to find employment after majoring in 18th century Chinese History?” Never mind that that sort of specificity is only really found at the graduate level, but the point is made: studying the humanities is completely irrelevant to today’s job market. Or is it? Without a shadow of a doubt, coverage of the humanities is getting better. The ratio of positive coverage to negative coverage is definitely improving, largely due to talk around the automation of jobs. Below are two recent instances of this positive coverage that seem to be indicative of where the conversation is headed.  The first comes from Mark Cuban, of Shark Tank, Broadcast.com, and Dallas Mavericks fame. In a February interview discussing the implications of widespread automation with Bloomberg, the conversation played out like this: 

Johnson (Bloomberg reporter): So essentially what you're making the case for is education and job training for grown ups. Cuban: No, no. I think that won't matter. What are you going to go back and learn to do? Johnson: What it takes, right? Whether it's finance, whether it's software programming. Cuban: No finance. That's the easiest thing — you just take the data have it spit out whatever you need. I personally think there's going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker.

That’s a fairly strong statement from someone who is generally regarded to know what he’s talking about.  Most recently, the Harvard Business Review’s JM Olejarz summarized the findings of three recent books on the topic in the following way: 

"From Silicon Valley to the Pentagon, people are beginning to realize that to effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges, we need to think critically about their human context - something humanities graduates happen to be well trained to do. Call it the revenge of the film, history, and philosophy nerds." - JM Olejarz, HBR

Basically, as automation moves from absorbing blue collar jobs to white collar jobs, the new hiring paradigm won’t so much require specific technical skills (though, of course, there will be exceptions - and technical skills will doubtless be important for the foreseeable future) as it will quintessential human skills.  As Josh Bersin explores in his presentation at TalentSummit.io (which you can watch here):

While jobs that do not require “essentially human” skills are being automated, the amount of jobs that require listening, empathy, and time-management skills are growing in number. - Josh Bersin, Bersin by Deloitte

Can you think of anything more “essentially human” than debating the meaning of life?  Here’s what the new job paradigm means for talent acquisition.

A New Hiring Paradigm Needs A New Screening Tool

We tend to be harder than most on resumes here at HireVue, and this isn’t just because they’re the industry-standard method of screening candidates. We’ve seen time, and time, and time again that replacing them with a more personable, high-quality screening step (in this case, video interviewing) generates tremendous results for both recruiters and candidates. While resumes might have found use in the past, today the convenience is not worth the cost - particularly if you're looking to future-proof your workforce. If we take what Mark Cuban, the Harvard Business Review, and Josh Bersin at face value, a more human screening tool moves from a “great ROI” to a “business necessity.” Because, frankly, good luck discerning qualities like “listening” and “empathy” from a piece of paper.

Take a Chance on British Literature

Think about the last non-technical, entry-level job description you either read or created. Chances are, the degree requirements looked something like this: Bachelor’s degree required, concentration in Business, Communications, or Journalism preferred. Then the job description goes on to list these desired attributes:

  • Effective communication skills, both written and verbal.
  • Results oriented, attention to detail, and good time management skills.
  • Works well in teams.
  • Possesses a high aptitude for critical and creative thinking.

Which of those attributes is unique to the study of Business, Communications, or Journalism?  Not only do graduates in the liberal arts excel at these sorts of “soft skills” - a liberal arts education has a heavy focus on discussion-driven classrooms and argumentative essays - they’re hungry to prove that their study of Shakespearean literature was not all for naught.  But if your first-pass screen involves screening by college major, you won’t even get a chance to see those soft skills on display.  It turns out that if you let them talk, students of the liberal arts display an unrivaled ability to articulate their thoughts, honed through years of debating the minutiae of Herodotus’ “Histories.” And once they’re hired, they’re actually good at their jobs- and eager to prove themselves. So if you’re looking to hire the next Stewart Butterfield (CEO, Slack; Philosophy), Jack Ma (CEO, Alibaba; English), Susan Wojcicki (CEO, YouTube; History & Literature), or Brian Chesky (CEO, AirBnB; Fine Arts); or you’re just looking to future-proof your workplace, try widening your net a bit. You might be surprised at what you catch.

See how Unilever ditched traditional screening methods to cast a wider net.

The result? Double the applications (from over 2500 colleges), an increase in new hire diversity, and Time to Hire decreased from four months to two weeks.