UBC grads say a humanities degree is perfect for a rapidly evolving job market
The public discourse around the value of a humanities degree grows louder in times of economic uncertainty, and Gage Averill, dean of UBC’s Faculty of Arts, says it is no surprise the conversation has intensified.
“As the economy has deteriorated, insecurities have risen, and along with that has come a focus on instrumental education,” he says. “People want more certainty and security, and want to know there’s something of value in their degrees.”
And so Averill wants Arts educators at Canadian universities to have a better understanding of the job markets their students are entering to better prepare them for career opportunities.
“Here at UBC we’re doing it with co-op programs, we’re doing it with a four-year career preparation rather than a fourth-year career preparation,” he says. “We want our students to be out in an internship or co-op placement, if possible. Ninety per cent of our co-op students are employed within a month of graduation.”
The career trajectory for those who study language, literature, music, art, history, philosophy and religion may not be as defined as for people studying engineering or nursing, but Averill says intellectual exploration builds baseline skills that allow for career mobility in an evolving job market.
“Industries and the needs of the job market are changing so fast,” he says. “What we instill in our students are transposable skills that allow them to research and retrain, making them lifelong flexible employees. These are people who are effective communicators, good problem-solvers, who bring a breadth of experience and perspective to positions that require innovation.”
A passion for learning
Ian Robertson (BA ’88, English Literature), vice-president of investment firm Odlum Brown, says his humanities degree gave him a solid grounding for future education in science, finance and management.
“For those who are interested and those for whom the finances permit, I think it’s far preferable to pursue what you’re interested in and consider technical skills and careers after,” he says. “It is a bit of a luxury as education becomes more expensive each year, but I think it’s a solid grounding for life, which is what university is all about.”
Trevor Quan (BA ’08, History and Commerce) agrees. The lead analyst for the B.C.’s Premier’s Technology Council says his work involves research, analysis and writing, skills he honed while studying a subject matter he was passionate about.
“While I do not get to make use of my history background in my day-to-day duties, it has been quite useful to provide a broader international and historical understanding that gives context when providing policy advice and recommendations,” he says.
Quan’s organization considers graduates with humanities degrees for a number of positions, he says, since they are valued for their strong analytical and writing skills.
“Humanities backgrounds can be quite useful for understanding complicated issues with several different dimensions to address,” he says. “We look for people who can see the big picture and also work in the details.”
Robertson says Odlum Brown also considers applicants with humanities degrees for open positions, Robertson says.
“You would think we’d just hire people with finance degrees, but we’re in the business of managing investments for clients. We need to know the technical aspects of what we’re doing, but we also need to relate to our clients and converse with them about topics they’re interested in.”
Graduates such as Robertson and Quan are equipped to provide insight and leadership on major global problems, Averill says, all of which are quite complex to solve.
“Issues such as climate change or global sex trafficking involve multiple nations, ranges of policymaking decisions, and technical, social and economic challenges,” he says. “We believe students who are graduating with humanities degrees are the kind of global citizens who can make a difference solving those problems.”
Veronica Owens (BA ’03 English Literature and Art History), a green building coordinator at Light House Sustainable Building Centre, works primarily with engineers and architects. While she’s one of a few humanities graduates in her line of work, she believes her undergraduate training helped her learn to adapt.
“The analytical research fields I learned directly from my degree were very helpful in getting me a number of different positions over the years,” she says. What I noticed is it was very easy for me to, compared to others, to learn quickly and assimilate new systems.”
Preparing for the job market of the future
A university education remains a strong investment for young Canadians. Research from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada finds that people with a an undergraduate degree make $1.4 million more over their lifetime than those with no post-secondary education and $1 million more than college grads.
Averill’s advice to young students is to study what they are passionate about so they can succeed in their area of study. In the past decade, he says, we’ve seen the rise of the Internet, online business, social media and multimedia, all of which have transformed the job market and created roles that did not previously exist.
“Your dream job may not have been invented yet,” he says. “So it can be a little dangerous to narrowly articulate training with the current needs of the job market. What we aim to do is provide students with resources for living, beyond just earning.”