A faint glimmer of hope.

I caught a faint glimmer of hope for the humanities this week. Likely, you didn’t see it. This week, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce released its annual report on the state of employment training, with the anxiety-inducting title A Battle We Can’t Afford to Lose.

These reports often rehearse the same line: business needs employees with transferable, “soft” skills. And, every year, I roll my eyes and wonder when business is going to address this skills gap in a serious manner – with money and action. (More about that in a later post.)

How badly does business need “soft” skills? Really badly.

In addition to presenting the troubling fact that approximately 40% of the Canadian workers lack the literacy skills needed to perform their work (including a sizeable number of those who have degrees and diplomas), the report also notes that, with the retirement of the baby boom, this skills gap will only increase. (This particular emerging skills gap – the loss of the knowledge regarding conventional written communications – spelling, grammar, that kind of thing – was identified in 2012 by a study undertaken in the US by American Association of Retired People and the Society of Human Resource Managers.)

But this year’s Chamber of Commerce report included a couple of remarkable – even encouraging — observations.

First, the report acknowledged the damage done by the current tendency in business to hire for credentials – particular degrees, majors, and certificates – rather than for skills. Another way to understand the distinction is between what one knows (content learned) and what one can do (skills developed through completion of various tasks). Thus, a business degree, with its focus on knowledge and hands-on applications, will almost always trump a humanities degree, even though the latter demands the development of critical thought, research, and communications abilities – those very skills that employers say they desperately need.

And the faint glimmer? On page 30, in its recommendations, the report acknowledges the inability of business to “easily recognize skill mastery among recent [humanities] graduates.”

That’s as far as it goes, however.

While acknowledging failure of employers to recognize the skills possessed by humanities graduates, the report stops short of calling on these employers to adjust their perspectives. Instead, the report recommends that PSE institutions adjust transcripts to include skills development. Because, you know, employers always ask to see your transcripts.

It was a faint glimmer, like I said.

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Caveat Emptor

It’s not often that a Gallup poll result makes me feel pity, but this one did. Briefly, this study asked college graduates about their interest in and satisfaction with their careers. Do you like your job? Do you find your job interesting and rewarding?

This study suggests business graduates as a group are bored and unfulfilled. (For those keeping score, social science and education graduates reported highest feelings of satisfaction and reward.)

And it’s not a slim majority, either. Fewer than 40% of those surveyed agreed with the statement “I am deeply interested in the work that I do.” And, of those who graduated with business degrees between 2000 and 2014, fewer than 40% liked their work. In other words, more than half the graduates of business schools do not enjoy the very activity their very focused education prepared them for.

Even if we factor in post-graduate studies, which appear to boost both happiness and interest levels, business students still lag behind, with an interest level of only 43%. And, the news got worse.

Business graduates can’t claim to be top money earners, either.

Not surprisingly, the Gallup study shows that business graduates typically out-earn social science, education, and humanities grads (The debate regarding earning potential for humanities continues: see this and that). However, business graduates are not the top earners. That distinction went to those with degrees in the sciences who, you’ll remember, are also happier and more interested in their work.

So, where does the pity come into play?

When I saw the poll results, I thought of an student I taught a few years ago.

I was trying to provoke a discussion about competing values systems. I used the example of public attitudes towards teachers. For example, whenever teachers ask for some improvement in their working conditions, public voices demand to know why teachers don’t care about children.

I asked a student – an Accounting major — why we don’t demand that accountants forego compensation. Why, in short, don’t accountants do their work out of sheer love of numbers?

“I don’t really like numbers,” she said.

This was an upper-year student whose focussed course of study was designed to set her up for a lifetime of working with numbers. She had just admitted she had no interest in either her major or her presumed career.

I knew from my exposure to Accounting majors that they tended to be very bright, highly competitive, and they were generally seen as star performers by both faculty and the student body. But here was one who, despite succeeding in the competition, didn’t find the prize appealing. Why was she there?

Every year, increasing numbers of students apply to and enter business colleges straight out of high school. (Indeed, business degrees are the hottest ticket in undergraduate studies these days.) We can safely assume these numbers reflect the widespread perception that business degrees offer a stable future, including assured employment. Indeed, with promises of a “rewarding career,” business schools echo these assumptions. So, where are the “rewards”?

Some would argue that this student, as an adult, chose her academic path and, as an adult, she must accept the consequences: a degree in a subject she doesn’t find interesting that will lead to a career that will likely make her neither rich nor happy.

But, did she really have a choice?

When this student made her choice, her reasoning was likely swayed by a marketing campaign that extended into common discourse. If she made a choice, it was because she trusted and believed those around her — teachers, parents, other students — who told her that a business degree was the sure path to lifelong employment. But what if those statements were based on a perception that, if the Gallup poll is accepted, seems to be at odds with the lived experiences of business graduates?

At the end of four years, there’s a very good chance this student – and others like her – will have employment, but at what cost?

Is there a case here for false advertising?

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