Like a lot of parents, my mother worried that I would never find work with my undergraduate English degree. One line I especially hated to hear from her was “The jobs are all going away!” Now that I have spent a couple decades hiring people with humanities degrees, I think differently about what she said and what it means for those graduates.
“The jobs are all going away” can mean “I can imagine you doing [job], but all those jobs are disappearing.” Here’s an example: many English majors of my generation (BA 1983) went to work initially as copy editors or editorial assistants at publishing houses. It is true that there are fewer of those jobs now, but what is also true, yet almost never mentioned, is that there are many jobs now that didn’t exist when I graduated.
When I published Now What Do I Say? Practical Workplace Advice for Younger Women in 2014, I published it digitally first. To turn the manuscript into a digital book, I hired a digital designer for the cover, a formatting expert who made the manuscript easy to read on e-readers, and a digital formatting specialist, who formatted the manuscript so I could submit it to different ebook sellers. So one answer to “the jobs are all going away” is “yes, and there are new jobs now that didn’t exist before.” If you find yourself being asked “is that even a real job?” you might be working in one of these newer fields.
“The jobs are all going away” can also mean “If you can’t do [a job I understand], I can’t imagine what else you could do with that degree.” Humanities degree holders have a harder time than, say, engineers explaining what jobs they can get and do with their degrees. Interestingly, that can work to their advantage, as every degree holder in every discipline still has to make the case to a potential employer that he or she can do the job being advertised. I have never hired a “degree” or a “major” of any kind, ever; I have hired people with skills who can do the work I need done. Because humanities degrees most often do not lead to a specific employment path, people with those degrees are forced, early and often, to articulate what skills they have, and they get good at it quickly, because they have to in order to get a job.
A related advantage humanities degree holders may not know they have is that in being forced to articulate their skills, they are less likely to define themselves by the jobs they hold. Jobs change: some become obsolete, some remain but become less common, some jobs increase in demand quickly. If you worked in railroad business in the 1920s and you described yourself as being in the railroad business instead of in the transportation business, you were probably more likely to be surprised by the fledgling trucking industry’s opportunities. So focus on the skills you have; develop new ones as often as you can; and think of yourself as someone who could bring your skills to many different jobs, because you are likely to hold many jobs over the course of your career.
Anne Krook is a consultant who helps graduate students and PhDs transition to non-academic workplaces and undergraduate humanities majors translate their skills into jobs. She was a speaker at HEQCO’s 2016 Transitions conference.