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Why liberal arts degrees are valuable in tech

Sharon Florentine | Aug. 23, 2016
Think having a STEM degree is the only way to succeed in technology industry? Think again.

Degrees grounded in the arts rather than the sciences have just as much value when applied to a career in technology, and impart valuable problem-solving, communication and critical-thinking skills that are incredibly important and very much in demand from employers, says Matt Brosseau, director of Information Technology, Instant Alliance, a recruiting, staffing and consulting firm based in Chicago.

Technology pros who also have the ability to communicate effectively, negotiate conflict, work well in teams and are adaptable to the ever-changing needs of a dynamic market are much more valuable to their organizations, especially at the managerial and executive level, according to Brosseau.

"I would argue that soft skills, like communication, empathy, teamwork and negotiation are almost more important than technical skills, especially in leadership or executive roles. Technologists who have these soft skills are better able to understand and accurately convey the business value of IT projects to other, non-technical stakeholders, get their buy-in and support and deliver more successful projects," Brosseau says.

The soft skills advantage

There's a direct relationship between soft skills and workers' effectiveness, and greater effectiveness on the job translates to better overall business results, says Kevin King, founder and CEO of Transformation Point, a management consulting and assessment firm, in a recent webcast for Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM).

"A higher degree of soft-skills competency brings improved effectiveness and improved organizational results, and that in turn drives greater employee engagement and retention," says King, two top priorities for businesses today, according to the State of the American Workplace survey from Gallup.

"When people work more efficiently and effectively together, that means their organizations see better results and they're more likely to stay," King says.

But even as engagement and retention become more important, the soft skills that can help increase those metrics become harder to find. SHRM's 2014 survey of economic conditions and recruiting skills gaps found that the 2,583 respondents cited critical thinking/problem-solving (40 percent), professionalism/work ethic (38 percent), leadership (34 percent) and written communications (27 percent) as the top four applied skills gaps.

Experts agree that technical skills can be taught much more easily than soft skills. If you have workers with great communication, negotiation and interpersonal skills, hold onto them. "You can have the best technology and processes in the world, but if your people aren't able to communicate about them, if they aren't effectively demonstrating teamwork, critical thinking and emotional intelligence, it doesn't help your business succeed," King says.

Educating the next generation

Those kinds of skills always have been emphasized in liberal arts education, and nowadays even technology-focused programs and institutions are integrating these tenets into their curriculum, says PK Agarwal, CEO and regional Dean, Northeastern University Silicon Valley (NUSV).


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