I’ve Got a BA Degree But No Job

George Anders, writing n the August 17, 2015 issue of Forbes, says there are ways of turning a “useless” Bachelor of Arts degree (some identify it as a “liberal arts” degree) into a meal ticket. That’s kind of hard to believe in this technology-soaked culture, but in his article, he brings out some salient points and suggestions on how to do it. This is becoming an increasingly relevant topic in an economy in which so many recent grads have a BA degree but no job.

These stories counter the growing notion wisdom that going to college is not the way to be successful in today’s world. And I’m not saying that getting a degree is the way, either. Some people are simply not “college material.” The necessary regimentation and social pressure don’t meld well with their personalities. There are those who learn faster and better on their own rather than being led by the nose in a class room lecture.

I've Got a BA Degree But No Job
I’ve Got a BA Degree But No Job

Family aspirations often force a high-schooler to go to college when they would do better working 50 hours a week at something they enjoy, which might develop into a career. College life and a college education should be a truly personal decision.

Making Lemonade

Anna Pickard is the 38-year-old editorial director of Slack Technologies. She’s the one who cooks up zany replies to Slack’s users who type in “I love you, Slackbot.” Her theater degree from Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University only got her so far then, irritated by many failed auditions, Anna tried blogging, video game writing and cat impersonations (yes, there is a demand for such in the field of audio “cover-over” work.) Her job is, Pickard explains, “to provide users with extra bits of surprise and delight.” The pay is good; the stock options are even better.

The man who hired her is the proud holder of an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victoria and a master’s degree from Cambridge in philosophy and the history of science. Stewart Butterfield is Slack’s 42-year-old co-founder and CEO, whose estimated double-digit stake in the company could be worth $300 million or more. He explains what higher education did for him.

“[Philosophy taught me] how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true, like the old notion of some kind of ether-in-the-air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”

Slack’s core business is “knowledge-management software”, something dedicated and frustrated engineers and technicians have been working on for at least 15 years. Slack makes everything simple. It bridges every kind of data from Dropbox to Twitter, organizing documents, photos and files into streamlined channels for easy browsing. Considering that Butterfield spent his early 20s trying to make sense of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings, sorting out corporate knowledge might seem simple.

It’s Not Just the Techies Who Make the Big Bucks

Engineers are still the highest paid, but the greatest war at newbies like Facebook and Uber is over nontechnical duties, like sales and marketing. It matters not how audacious and innovative the software or equipment, if there are no customers, it has no value.

MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in a recent book predict that today’s tech wave will inspire a new style of work. In The Second Machine Age, they say tech takes care of routine tasks, leaving people to think on what mortals do best: developing imaginative content in a society ripe with inspiration.

What is the future of “Tech” jobs?

Here are some facts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • By 2022 some 1 million more Americans will enter the workforce as educators. Another 1.1 million newcomers will earn a living in sales.
  • In 2012, there were 38,127,600 persons with less than a high school degree employed in the United States. By 2022 that number will increase by 10.9%. By contrast, software engineers’ ranks will grow by 279,500, or barely 3% of overall job growth.
  • Each wave of tech will create fresh demand for high-paid trainers, coaches, workshop leaders and salespeople.

The example of Pickard and Butterfield demonstrate, despite the field having lower employment rates, a liberal arts degree can be a great educational background and allow students to segue into a variety of careers by exposing them to a wide range of concepts, and experience.

Dr. Paul D’Anieri, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida, says, “I keep reading statistics about how many times today’s graduates will change careers during their lifetimes. A liberal arts degree is the ideal preparation for that kind of world, even if the degree does not channel one neatly into one’s first post-college job.”

Real-life Adjustments

I have a friend who graduated with a Masters degree in Journalism, went into the Army as a Public Information Officer, then stepped into commercial voice-over work, and ended up as a corporate public relations director. Another acquaintance started out in seminary then went to work for a religious denomination’s publishing company as a marketing director. A relative received a degree in Agronomy, then snagged a gig as a consultant to a Middle Eastern nation’s irrigation project. His work as a manager of a flower and nursery store was sandwiched in the middle.

A stocker for a grocery store got bored with shelving the products in a routine manner. When given the opportunity to create “end cap” (end of the aisle displays) he got creative, and soon was recruited by a graphic and products design firm. And his degree had been in math; he’d hope to go into accounting for the food chain.

“A liberal arts degree provides an inherent advantage in written and oral communication, interpersonal skills, problem solving, critical and analytical thinking, and adaptability to change,” says JP Hansen, career expert and author of The Bliss List: The Ultimate Guide to Living the Dream at Work and Beyond. “The ability to comprehend, communicate, and conquer problems is the name of the game and is implied with a liberal arts degree.” That “problem-solving” intuition means big bucks in the tech world.

Carole Haber, dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University says, “Two misconceptions fuel [the discussion of the value of a liberal arts degree in a job search]: one, that the ‘worth’ can be measured by dollars alone rather than through higher level skills gained through the degree, and two, that the value can be measured through the individual’s first job, rather than through the life course,” she says.

A study by the Social Science Research Council claims students with skills typically taught in liberal arts programs tend to be more successful after graduation.

While liberal arts students usually have a wider variety of courses as opposed to more career-focused curriculum, the experts recommend taking a few specialized classes as well.

Don’t limit yourself in terms of the jobs you apply for, but make sure you are able to quantify your skills and experiences, both on your resume and in person.

“Though many companies indicate a preference for a business degree during on-campus recruiting, don’t think for a second you’re not marketable with a liberal arts degree,” says Hansen. “The ability to write an impressive resume and communicate well in an interview make the degree discernible.”

Did you graduate college with a Bachelor of Arts degree? Are you still working in that field? If not, how have you leveraged the things you learned in college into improving your job performance? If you went back to college today, would you follow the same degree?

( Photo by NazarethCollege )

4 Responses to I’ve Got a BA Degree But No Job

  1. Bill, I often wonder if people RESEARCH their career choices before investing time and money into a degree. I tell the younger generation to always do this. Now there are no guarantees the NEED will still be there when they graduate, but this research will INCREASE the chances of them filling a NEED. Life these days are about finding a need and filling it. Even at age 57 and thinking about going back to finish up an incomplete 2 year degree I am looking at where I am now living and figuring out what is needed. In my case there is a need to teach English to the various cultures that are here. Now to figure out the best way to do this as I am so not into creating any more bills with a student loan. Great article Bill!

  2. Hi Angela – I think you’ve identified one of the major problems. Information and advice on that is all over, yet people continue to go to school for soft majors. It MAY be OK to do that, but if you do you have to have a strategy to make your education relevant, and I think, you have to gain some relevant career experience while you’re in school. And it should go without saying that you have to keep the cost of that education as low as possible, preferably without graduating with any debt.

  3. Angela and Kevin,
    You both have good points, but the trouble is folks, at least in my day, went to college to get a degree in something they already enjoyed doing, with the goal of being able to get more money for doing it. That’s not the proper motivation, I feel. If you enjoy doing something, and are somewhat good at it, you can get ahead in the field by just find a place to do it, and then do it! I learned all I know about computers by just “playing” with them. My skills in audio production came not from the classes I took at UGA but the hours I spent on Friday nights and Saturdays in the audio studios by myself just messing around with the equipment. Other than giving me access to that, there likely was no real advantage for me to have gone to the university. I ended up in jobs for which I didn’t have a degree, and I hated them and didn’t do a good job at them. I would have been much better off if I had skipped college, worked my way up through the field, and likely would have had a different life. My son is a vice-president of an insurance agency and he only went to Georgia State for not quite a year.

    We need to encourage college educations only in the sense that one needs specialized, concentrated, focused training in very narrow niches and then only to satisfy an inner emotional hunger, not as a means of getting more money.

    Those that do go to college need to look at the examples in this piece and try to make personal applications.

  4. Hi Bill – I agree with all of what you’re saying. Especially today, with all of the online resources available – in combination with a very uncertain job market – I think the preferred route is now self-education. Meaning, decide what you want to do, learn all that you can on the web, or through playing as you said Bill, then finding a place to actually apply your skills. A degree is just a credential in most fields, it doesn’t mean you can do the job. In order to do the job you need to get out and do it. That’s not semantics either. If you have to work for free to get some experience, then that’s what you do. I started writing for free on the web, so I’m not recommending anything I haven’t done myself.

    Young people today need to recognize that the game is changing, that having a college degree doesn’t guarantee a successful career any more than not having a degree guarantees that you won’t.

    Years ago I worked at a major mortgage company, where the sales manager – the most successful in the company – was a high school drop out. He was overseeing people who had college degrees, and he was more successful than any of them. Privately, he used to laugh about it, bragging that he was a high school drop out who didn’t waste time on a education. He was on to something. Education is just a door opener; what you do once the door opens is based on a combination of skills, desire, determination, creativity and natural talent/advantages. A degree doesn’t confer any of those qualities. Today, that’s where the emphasis needs to be. Not on a high priced education (that’s Post-World War 2 thinking), but on actually doing what it is you want to do, even if the path to getting there isn’t a straight line.

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