For much of the first decade of the new millennium, Samuel J. Palmisano and A.G. Lafley led two of the biggest names in American business: IBM and Procter & Gamble. By the time they were named chief executive officers, the two iconic companies were in need of the makeovers the two leaders eventually helped engineer. The two men have something else in common as well: They graduated from college with degrees in the liberal arts.
Palmisano and Lafley both credit their undergraduate education for their accomplishments. As chief executives, and now in retirement, they often talk about the inherent importance of the liberal arts to a successful workplace where creativity, problem solving, flexibility, and teamwork are paramount.
With the liberal arts "you get to exercise your whole brain," says Lafley, who graduated with a history degree from Hamilton College. "Inductively reasoning in the science courses, deductively reasoning in some of the philosophy and humanities courses, abductively reasoning in design. You understand inquiry. You understand advocacy."
Palmisano maintains that college graduates need a "deep skill" in some academic subject, but that depth in one area needs to be supplemented with other knowledge. "If you're deep in math and science or engineering, you've got to balance it with the humanities because you have to work in these multicultural global environments in the broadest sense of diversity. All religions. All cultures. All languages," says Palmisano, who majored in behavioral social sciences at Johns Hopkins University.
In survey after survey, employers seem to agree that the skill they most want in future workers is adaptability. Those who hire complain that they often find today's college graduates lacking in interpersonal skills, problem solving, effective written and oral communication skills, teamwork, and the ability to think critically and analytically. Employers say that future workplaces need those skills as well as degree holders who can come up with novel solutions to problems and better sort through information to filter out the most critical pieces.
So which college majors best arm students with those skills? That question has touched off heated discussions between those who advocate for the content of a practical major and others who think that the skills of a liberal-arts major are the best insurance in rapidly changing fields.
Employers are almost evenly split on the issue. In one survey, 45 percent of hiring managers said they preferred that students get an education that specifically prepares them for the workplace; 55 percent favored a broad-based education.
"Ideally, you want to do both," Richard Arum tells me. Arum is a co-author of Academically Adrift, the 2011 book that found that almost half of students failed to improve their critical-thinking skills in the first two years of college.
Arum says the field of study matters less than how much you work in the major. For instance, mathematics and science majors don't write or read much for their classes, but they show gains in critical thinking because they spend the most hours studying. "It doesn't matter what these students focus on," Arum says, "as long as they focus on it in a rigorous way."
It is easy for Palmisano and Lafley to advocate hiring people with liberal-arts degrees. IBM and Proctor & Gamble are well known for their training programs. Take smart college graduates, put them through apprenticeships, and of course it doesn't really matter what they majored in.
But most companies are not like IBM and Proctor & Gamble. Corporate training has largely disappeared, along with the recruiters whose job it was to locate the best candidates for those programs, argues Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and author of Why Good People Can't Get Jobs (click on the link to get a free e-book copy this week).
Cappelli tells me that while corporate CEOs might say they favor applicants with a broad education at the foundation, those leaders are largely removed from the hiring process. The people on the front lines of hiring these days are lower-level managers who want jobs filled by people who can do the work immediately.
"This plays on the prejudices of the hiring manager," he says. "If they think they need someone with a master's degree, they'll ask for that. If they think it will take too long to train a liberal-arts graduate, they will toss those applications aside. All without evidence of what's really needed to do the job."
Those who hire also receive their initial pool of candidates through a screening process that has largely been taken out of human hands with automated software that scans applications and resumés for certain keywords. "They can't imagine the job skills or experiences you don't program into them," including nontechnical degrees, Cappelli says.
It's unlikely that the technology used in hiring will be jettisoned anytime soon, so what can be done?
First, employers who overrely on such technology and then complain they can't find qualified people to fill jobs should take a page from how some of the most admired companies hire and realize that they are passing over potentially skilled employees when they cut corners.
Second, colleges need to better prepare students for the transition from school to work. It's not just courses on figuring out how to get a job or manage a career, but real work experiences need to be created for students through co-ops or postgraduate internships where they can apply their knowledge and continue to learn.
Third, we need to bring back the idea of the apprenticeship, especially in manufacturing. Cappelli notes in his book that, for 12 million manufacturing jobs in the United States now, there are only 18,000 apprentices. Apprenticeships would take some of the pressure off the squeezed community-college systems in many states and reduce the loan burden for students. Apprenticeships would also help employers who complain about the lack of skilled labor and the coming wave of retirements in manufacturing.
And finally, at the four-year level, we need stronger connections between colleges and employers. Right now, employers see themselves as detached consumers of what colleges produce, and academics are sometimes hostile to the notion that they are simply training students for jobs.
One small example of what could be done comes from Minnesota, where CEOs and college leaders — including Brian C. Rosenberg, president of Macalester College (a liberal-arts institution) — have teamed up to figure out how to better align academic programs with work-force needs.
At the University of Pennsylvania, Cappelli notes that the best students, regardless of major, mostly go on to work at investment banks and consulting firms because they recruit heavily and have intensive training programs (of course, the pay is a big attraction too).
One could argue that those two industries provide important services but not much value to expand the economy for the future. But just imagine if more companies provided the training that the banks and consultants do. Perhaps then we'd have fewer people worrying about the demise of the liberal arts.
By Jeff Selingo, award-winning journalist and thought leader on higher education. Author of 'College (Un)Bound,' coming in 2013