As high unemployment continues, college students and their parents want to know what employers are looking for. While almost any business needs employees with specific skills — market analysis or web
development, for example — students can be trained in those areas. What top employers look for when hiring new employees, according to a survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, are the capabilities that a broader education provides: critical thinking, complex problem solving, strong communication skills, civic responsibility and the ability to lead.
Why? Because employers realize that with the world changing so quickly, it’s impossible to know what challenges their employees will face tomorrow. Graduates of top liberal arts and sciences institutions have the versatility to respond to that ever-changing environment.
It’s true that the recipient of a liberal arts education may not be as “real-world ready” at graduation as a student who chooses a more targeted, vocational college curriculum. But students who are educated in a narrow field are out of luck if there are no jobs in that specific industry or sector.
We believe that combining a broad liberal arts education with experiential learning opportunities is the best way to prepare students for an ever-evolving workplace. Whitman College graduate Jonathan Sposato is a great example. A politics major, Sposato combined his liberal arts education with his real-world experience as a bartender and his time as a Microsoft employee to help launch two startup companies — both of which were sold to Google — before going on to cofound the online tech news site GeekWire.
Of course, undergraduates everywhere should be more prepared for real-world job seeking. To do that, colleges need to do a better job of connecting students with employers and the wider community, helping them build a network of contacts and opening their minds to emerging industries and organizations.
One example of the many opportunities students have to connect with influential business leaders occurred recently on our campus when alumna Megan Clubb, the president and CEO of Baker Boyer Bank, spent time networking with Whitman students at an informal gathering. Clubb, who is also a San Francisco Federal Reserve Board member, started her undergraduate career at the University of Washington studying oceanography before transferring to Whitman to major in economics. We also see great opportunity for those with a liberal arts background in the expanding world of entrepreneurship. In an age when students can create and run startups from their dorm rooms, an M.B.A. is no longer the gatekeeper to running a business.
To encourage our undergraduates to apply their critical thinking skills to entrepreneurial solutions, Whitman recently collaborated with Walla Walla Community College, Walla Walla University, the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Development Center to hold a business plan competition. Contestants were asked to propose creative solutions to the issue of glass waste, a problem that arises because we don’t have glass-recycling facilities in our part of Washington state. Local students submitted a number of impressive business proposals that detailed innovative ideas focused on sustainability, feasibility and profitability. The winning proposal suggested crushing and tumbling waste glass to create glass pieces that look like natural sea glass for use in home décor and landscape design.
Students should continue to see the value in pursuing a broad education, and employers should recognize that there is no substitute for an employee who knows how to question, how to think and, more important, how to creatively solve both the problems we see today as well as the problems we have not yet foreseen.
Kimberly Rolfe is director for business engagement at Whitman College in Walla Walla. She specializes in connecting students and recent graduates to internships and career opportunities in the private sector, as well as providing training and experiences that will prepare them for career entry.