Well-rounded employees wanted in the new economy

High-tech companies have a renewed interest in liberal arts graduates and students are opting for a mix of college and university education to prepare themselves for the working world

The liberal arts have an unlikely champion: leaders of the high-tech economy.

But the high-tech frenzy in recent years has promulgated a myth that a liberal arts education has no place in the new economy and that university graduates leave school unprepared for the new working world.

“There certainly seems to be an increasing perception, a false one, that a broad general arts degree fails to provide skills for the workplace,” said Sally Brown, senior vice-president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC).

Proponents like Brown have been pushing to correct that myth about the value of a liberal arts education and its link to the new economy workplace. They say the myth that university graduates leave school — despite the long hours of reading, researching and writing — unprepared with unmarketable skills has become widespread with young adults and in particular their parents who are instrumental in determining where and what type of higher-education their children will pursue. That misconception, in addition to a push towards the trades and the increasing cost of a university education, has likely fuelled a seven-year decrease in university enrolment which is only now starting to turn upwards again, albeit slowly.

While no one disputes the need for high-tech graduates, critics argue that focusing solely on this type of training means, in the end, a lack of well-rounded leaders.

“We need to get back to that idea (of the well-rounded employee). It is making a comeback with industry telling us more and more that that is what they are looking for.”

Last year, 30 top executives of major Canadian high-tech corporations — including BCE Inc. CEO and president Jean Monty, and president and managing director of Cisco Systems Canada Pierre-Paul Allard — released a joint statement touting the merits of a liberal arts and science background in the dotcom economy.

And, while governments have been throwing money at the high-tech studies and polytechnic institutions, skimping on funding for the traditional liberal arts studies, the statement called for a balanced approach to funding.

“It is impossible to operate an effective corporation in the new economy by employing technology graduates alone,” read the statement. “We have an equally strong need for those with a broader background who can work in tandem with technical specialists, helping create and manage a corporate environment,” it went on to state.

The statement from industry leaders was a vindication for proponents of the liberal arts and renewed debate about the value of the humanities and sciences in the new economy.

“As you can see from the CEO statement, a liberal arts education is extremely valuable. First, not only are the skills nurtured by the liberal arts important, they are actually growing in value. Technologies such as the Internet are opening new markets and opportunities for businesses. If Canadian companies are to compete and prosper in the global arena they need to be creative and adaptable,” said Don Tapscott, Net-generation guru, chair of the Alliance for Converging Technology and a signatory to the CEO statement.

“Second, we have got to enthusiastically endorse the idea that combining a liberal arts and science education with a technical education is not a waste of the student’s time or tax dollars. The students reap a rich payback in terms of the enhanced contribution they can make to the company and the community, and we benefit enormously as a society,” Tapscott said.

According to Tapscott, who has written extensively on the new economy and the Internet generation, students are often blindsided by short-term gains and overlook the long-term possibilities when choosing a particular path to higher-education.

“They might think: ‘Why go to university for four years when you can get a technical education in, say, two years, that will pay the same on graduation?’ But when thinking of your education you should think long term. Today you need to learn how to practice lifelong learning because you will re-invent your career a number of times throughout your life. I am personally on a third and fourth career.”

According to the AUCC, from 1993 to 1998, enrolment in humanities programs in Canadian universities dropped by 11 per cent while high-tech enrolment increased by 63 per cent and computer science enrolment increased by 56 per cent over the same time frame. Overall, the number of full-time undergraduates was expected to jump by 10,000 in Canada, totalling more than 523,000 for 2000-2001.

Brown, who travels the country visiting high schools and meeting with parents, said employers, and especially those in IT, are increasingly looking for skilled workers to help them maintain their competitive edge. And remaining competitive means employing leaders who are creative, are able to see the larger picture, who possess critical learning and reasoning skills, and who have the ability to keep learning, said Brown.

“That’s what you get with a liberal arts education. We’ve started to look at the background of managers and not surprisingly most had a liberal arts education,” said Brown.

The difference, she said, is that liberal arts provide students with career skills as opposed to industry-specific work skills. What that means is that a bachelor’s degree in history or sociology may not teach you how to design a Web page but it will give you the critical learning skills to learn how to do it, to be creative and innovative. These “generalist” qualities, said Brown, are “what makes great managers.”

And great managers usually have a varied educational and professional background. An emphasis on developing high-tech workers for the digital economy has threatened the notion of the “well-rounded” employee with a diverse educational background and skills base. This is due in part to the rapid growth of these industries and the inability for labour to keep up with such demands. According to one study, Canadian universities won’t be able to produce enough skilled people to maintain Canada’s global leadership in the areas of microelectronics, photonics and wireless technologies. The study by eMPOWR (a joint public-private initiative to develop a technology labour pool) found that by 2005 there will be a 70 per cent shortfall of high-tech graduates.

With academia under their belts, university graduates are choosing to take college courses before entering the workforce. While businesses are coming out trumpeting the value of a liberal arts education, the reality is that the skills needed for the workplace are more and more requiring some degree of technical or practical training.

Howard Rundle, chair of the committee of college presidents of the Ontario Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology and president of Fanshawe College of Applied Arts and Technology in London, Ont., said that is why university graduates are looking to colleges to fill that gap.

There is definitely a strong trend upwards of university graduates enrolling in post-graduate college programs, said Rundle. Most graduates choose a one-year post-grad program.

Rundle said graduates are going back to school because of an increase in the degree of complexity in employment-related skills and industries, employers requiring certain skills as a precondition of employment and a tighter labour market.

“There are skills and knowledge that didn’t exist a decade ago. (Colleges) are responding to that fact and the fact that (university graduates) are having to go where they can get sufficient skills for job entry,” said Rundle.

“The fact that it is becoming more popular indicates that there is a demand for (post-graduate programs),” added Rundle.

For Rundle, a well-rounded employee, especially those geared for managerial positions, start with a broad general arts education and often go back to college to “round out” that education.

“Certainly someone who goes into management has to have a rounded education. A combination of university and college is excellent in that regard.”

In Ontario, there is a move to allow colleges to grant applied degrees in specific fields. Bill 132 is before the legislature and Rundle expects that some colleges in the province will be able to grant degrees by September. It would be another option for Ontario students and greater availability of “well-rounded” employees to choose from, said Rundle.

What grads want from work

A study by the Royal Bank of Canada looked at what university graduates expect and want from their future employers:

•79 per cent will enter the workplace immediately after graduation;
•eight out of 10 graduates say they want “careers”;
•graduates are most attracted to interesting jobs (81 per cent), not just high-paying jobs (19 per cent);
•they expect to make average starting salaries of $46,000 for undergraduates and $57,000 for graduate students;
•only 22 per cent say they were attracted to the high-tech industry as a career option; and
•43 per cent want to be executives in large corporations and 24 per cent would prefer to work at a company of more than 500 employees.

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