For many, many years, most colleges and universities around the country have emphasized the importance of “a well-rounded liberal arts education.” It’s this kind of educational path that requires students to take courses and accumulate credits from a wide range of disciplines—including humanities, communication, math, science and technology, social science, and more. These credit requirements—usually referred to as “General Education” requirements, or Gen-Eds—form the backbone of a student’s college education at many U.S. institutions of higher learning. The question is, are these schools that preach versatility and “well-rounded” education giving students the tools they need to succeed in the modern workplace?
In the past, the answer may have been “Yes.” Today, it feels like an unequivocal “No.” That’s not to say there isn’t value to getting a well-rounded education. On the contrary, taking courses in a wide range of subjects can help students to identify their passions, expand their horizons, and become more open-minded in how they interact with the world. However, in a rapidly changing and increasingly technologically advanced world, what can help students toward self-discovery isn’t necessarily what will prepare them for success in the workplace.
Understanding the Demands of the Modern Workplace
To understand what students ultimately need from colleges and universities (and high schools, where a Liberal Arts mentality is still alive and well in most curriculums), we need to try to understand the demands of the modern workplace. While every workplace is slightly different in its requirements and demands, here are a few of the areas of expertise that employers tend to expect from workers:
- Mastery of craft: The big flaw in Liberal Arts study is that employers don’t care how many subjects a student took classes in during high school or college. That’s because employers aren’t looking for people with familiarity in a bunch of areas that have nothing to do with their bottom line; they are looking for individuals who have an absolute mastery of a particular niche. That’s not to say employers aren’t looking for well-rounded people. On the contrary, it’s getting more common for people to serve interdisciplinary functions in the workplace, taking on a variety of different tasks depending on the work requirements of the moment. What employers want are those who are virtuosos of their own craft but who are also adaptable and versatile enough to accept other responsibilities. Needless to say, living up to this particular demand is a tall order, but it’s one you can reach if you pay attention to the other skills that most modern businesses need.
- Digital fluency: If you are going to be adaptable in the modern workplace, you are going to need to build up a proficiency in technology. Many top career paths today—from engineering to web design to software development—are all about technology. Even the ones that aren’t, though, use digital tools on a day-to-day basis. Email systems; collaboration and productivity software; photo editing tools; cloud file storage apps; online content management systems; cyber security systems. These are just a few of the tech tools you may be required to use in the modern workplace. Having a fluency in some or all of them will make you a more marketable candidate and a more valuable employee. It will also prepare you to embrace any future innovations or technologies that might transform your industry and change your job description.
- Communication skills: Even though the modern workplace has gone largely digital (and that telecommuting and remote offices have gained popularity as a result) communication skills remain as critical as ever in the professional world. Many menial tasks or easily replicable routines have been automated (or will be automated soon), leaving jobs that involve a lot of creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. Being able to work as one cog in a grander machine, then, is essential for today’s worker. Interpersonal skills and the ability to convey your ideas clearly are a must. The fundamental nature of these skills extends to digital communication as well. Between emails, cloud-based collaboration software, and team instant messaging programs, so much of the conversation that goes on in the modern workplace happens through writing. The ability to write well, then, is a skill that will have high value in any job or industry.
- Resilience: It’s been said many times that the millennial generation is a generation of young people who have never been taught to handle failure. Obviously, this claim is dismissive and overly general, stereotyping an entire generation of people in a way that isn’t necessarily fair or accurate. However, regardless of the accuracy of the claim, the truth is that workers who can’t handle failure are not well-equipped for the modern workplace. Mistakes happen all the time. You are guaranteed to see plenty of them in your career. You are also guaranteed to face rejection, whether in the form of a promotion you don’t get or a job that goes to someone else. Learning to take these failures and turn them into moments for learning, growth, inspiration, and innovation is a quality that not a lot of people of any age have, let alone millennials. If you’ve got that kind of resilience, then you have the heart and soul to succeed in the modern world—regardless of your industry.
Conclusion: How Educational Institutions Can Better Service Students
So, what should colleges and high schools be doing to prepare their students for the modern world? They should still strive to offer a well-rounded education, but in different ways than they once did. Students should focus most of their energy on immersing themselves in their chosen fields of study. Courses outside this core field should focus on technological fluency, collaboration skills, and writing skills. Finally, students should be taught not to fear failure, but to embrace it as a chance to learn more and grow more. In place of the standard Liberal Arts model of education, a model built around these pillars would be far more likely to prepare students for success and longevity in the workplace.