What should you study in college? The answer may surprise you.

by Jennifer Johnson,

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Be curious, adapt and collaborate — our future depends on it. 

When futurist and former Apple executive James Canton describes the years ahead, he says we should not think of it as a “steady plodding of progress from one moment to the next, punctuated by brief bursts of innovation.” Quite the opposite, in fact: the new future will be defined by speed, complexity, risk, change and surprise. 

Survival means evolving, he says. And you don’t learn how to evolve by taking one class or limiting your studies to a single major while you’re in college. 

Future of jobs

An education based on a balanced intellect — a mix of social and natural sciences, history, philosophy, the arts and math — and a layered skill set is imperative to a rapidly transforming job market.  

The heightened use of automation and emerging technologies, a greater number of career changes and mid-career retraining, and an unprecedented demand for innovation across most fields only lies ahead of us. These represent a few of the factors that will eliminate jobs but also create new ones, the vast number of which haven’t even been invented yet. 

Data from 2019 show the promise of liberal arts graduates under these circumstances. According to “Robot-ready: Human + Skills for the Future of Work” — a report that included an examination of more than 100 million social and professional profiles and resumes — “liberal arts programs are supplying the very competencies employers are demanding.” 

The report states:

  • Leadership, research, communications, writing and problem-solving skills are among the most in-demand, according to more than 36 million job postings in 2018.

  • Liberal arts graduates currently make up a larger percentage of the tech workforce than technical graduates. LinkedIn data estimates that from 2010-13, the growth of liberal arts majors entering the technology industry from college outpaced computer science and engineering majors by 10 percent. Nearly 40 percent of all recent liberal arts graduates in tech worked at internet or software companies.

  • Liberal arts graduates have more career mobility compared to others. “Across every career field, liberal arts majors are more likely to change professions than other majors, except for in office and administration jobs,” which indicates their education can be applied to multiple careers. In information technology, 61 percent of new graduates work in either software development and IT networks and systems and remain in those fields.

“There are those who believe that the ‘hard’ skills of science, technology, engineering and math are most critical to the future, and those who believe the uniquely ‘human’ skills of the liberal arts are the ones that will endure in the face of automation,” the report states. “We say, ‘both, and’: it is the integration of human and technical skills that will provide the preparation for the future of work.” 

Need for ‘soft’ skills

Research and futurists also say there will still be a need for skills that automation can’t replace: work that requires empathy, judgment and perspective. 

Historically, skills such as being a good listener or critical thinker were considered “soft,” or of lesser importance than measurable abilities like math. But in the future there will be a dramatic reversal of this mindset. 

Between 2016 and 2030, the demand for social and emotional skills will grow across all industries by 26 percent in the U.S. and by 22 percent in Europe, according to 2018 research by the McKinsey Global Institute

“While some of these skills, such as empathy, are innate, others such as advanced communication, can be honed and taught,” the discussion paper states. 

In addition, skills such as creativity, critical thinking, decision-making and complex information processing will grow by 19 percent in the U.S. and 14 percent in Europe over the same time period. 

Companies across five major sectors — banking, energy, healthcare, manufacturing and retail — will shift toward more team-based and collaborative work structures. 

People who listen carefully, ask the right questions and take a creative approach to problem-solving will thrive in this type of environment — and those are the very skills that liberal arts and science colleges emphasize. 

So when you’re ready to choose a college, pick one that gives you a broad-based education instead of confining yourself to a narrow path. That’s the best way to be prepared for the world — and the careers — of tomorrow. 

Willamette University

University Communications

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Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.

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