It’s Time to Start Looking at the Skills and Competencies Developed in Arts Programs

Why are you studying history? Is your end goal unemployment? I thought you didn’t want to be a teacher?

These are just some of the questions I heard throughout my undergraduate degree, and I’m not the only one. In recent years, the perceived value of arts programs has declined. Unlike science, business or engineering, the humanities provide no direct path to employment. This has led students to question their employment prospects following graduation, with some – including myself at one brief point in my studies – considering switching programs to study something that they aren’t passionate about just to have more promising employment outcomes.

While arts programs do not tend to provide a specific career path, these degree programs provide students with something else: a significant set of transferable skills. Let’s look at history degrees as an example. Sure, I can name some dates of significant Canadian and American events, list some important people and politicians, and how to pronounce some words in Latin, however, it is not these pieces of information that have helped me in my current role, nor is it this information that will continue to help me throughout my career. Instead, my program taught me how to think critically, analyze pieces of information, judge and perceive actions, and how to write effectively. These are skills that I utilize every single day both at work and in my personal life.

A quick Google search of “university skills gap” brings up numerous articles discussing the lack of qualifications and competencies that university graduates possess. They argue that in today’s employment market, entry-level candidates do not possess the skillset required for their posted positions. I would argue against this notion, as there appears to be more of a ‘translation or articulation gap’ rather than a ‘skills gap’ in Ontario.

When students graduate university they often leave school with a resume that highlights their academic achievements and student employment experience. When students submit these resumes in hopes of starting a career, many employers turn them aside. Looking to history degrees again, as an example, these students may not be able to explain how they can critically examine significant amounts of material and summarize it, exploring the root themes of the information in front of them. They may not be able to explain how they can work in interdisciplinary environments, as the historical analysis skills they developed often delve into areas of economics, politics and psychology. By not providing these students with an opportunity to explain the skills they have developed, employers are missing out on highly skilled employees.

Thankfully, the government of Ontario has recently taken steps in an effort to address this issue. When the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel released their final report, they highlighted 28 recommendations, which they believed would help the current and future workforce adapt to today’s economy. Envisioning a workforce and education system where young Ontarians are all given opportunities to develop the necessary skills and competencies to succeed professionally, the panel acknowledged that Ontario will only be successful if students, employers, academic institutions and government all work together to rethink the traditional roles and responsibilities of entry level employment positions, and that they communicate and be open-minded to the possibilities of different learning methods.

We need to dismiss the notion that arts degrees are less valuable than professional or science degree programs and look to the recommendations that the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel developed. The numerous skills developed in programs like history, political science, communications, languages and philosophy are significant assets to employers and society as a whole. Arguably, these programs provide graduates who are more versatile and adaptable than STEM graduates due to the broad skillsets they develop. Students in the arts are not training for one specific career; they are gaining the skillsets required to succeed in all aspects of their adult life. If we acknowledge this, we will be taking a step in the right direction towards recognizing how learning and skills development has evolved in our post-secondary education system.