OPINION: Liberal arts colleges must be partners in workforce development

Thursday, September 2, 2021 - 10:55

e can use the power of the liberal arts to broaden workforce development. Liberal arts skills are really innovation skills, and must not be overlooked in the latest federal and state workforce development and education initiatives.

The current, common narrative used in these initiatives pits the liberal arts as an alternative to technology and science. That is simply wrong. The liberal arts are a humanizing complement and force multiplier.

In fact, liberal arts colleges can and must be close partners in reimagining our country’s workforce and addressing urgent issues facing society.

First, liberal arts colleges can be a direct pipeline to careers in high-innovation areas. As envisioned in the American Jobs Plan, for example, these areas range from tech fields and entrepreneurial ventures to the work being done on complex issues like environmental justice and biosecurity that require new thinking.

To be sure, specialized technical and professional skills are a clear ramp to jobs in innovation. But it’s liberal arts meta-skills (so-called soft skills) that fuel how far our students can go.

These meta-skills drive our ability to work flexibly and innovate throughout our careers. Curiosity, creativity, critical analysis, experimentation, collaboration, empathy and communication all drive innovation.

Second, liberal arts graduates can be turbocharged to be even more effective. We can provide them with real-world experiences and in-demand technical, professional and industry-specific skills.

In a future marked by automation and inequality, both human-centered skills and digital know-how will be needed. These turbocharged graduates will have a valuable, hybrid set of skills primed for ongoing innovation.

Liberal arts colleges have already created a hybrid talent pool with their STEM graduates, who in many cases also studied the arts, humanities and social sciences. These students are curious, and they know how to question and reimagine the world around them.

Such students are strong candidates for the graduate programs and science laboratories that propel research and development. Their broad-based educations give them the creative confidence to think across boundaries and relate to others.

Related: OPINION: Let’s not turn community colleges into just workforce development

Third, liberal arts colleges can expand their talent pool. By their very nature, liberal arts schools must constantly innovate to deliver on their promise of staying relevant. They can do this by continuing to expand access, from precollege programs and partnerships with minority-serving community colleges to collaborative ventures with industry.

For example, liberal arts colleges can provide better access to nontraditional adult learners who, at any stage in their careers, may want to add foundational liberal arts skills by taking a few credits or earning skills-based certificates or pursuing a degree.

All of these strategies will better prepare students for the workforce by adding career-ready skills and experiences onto a liberal arts education. Preparing students for the workforce does not in any way compromise or diminish the liberal arts. On the contrary, it’s a way to further democratize education.

Recent national and global surveys confirm that employers across industries value the meta-skills and broad base of knowledge for which liberal arts graduates are known. Studies also show that liberal arts graduates out-earn their counterparts over time.

So why are the liberal arts invisible in workforce development models, which equate employer needs with the technical requirements listed in job ads?

Training people only to meet short-term labor demand is short-sighted and doesn’t anticipate the needs of the future.

Workforce development too often is defined narrowly as skills training that allows people to return to work or acquire a new, specialized skill.

Yet the more broadly educated, multiskilled people we have in society, the better. From an equity lens, people at any age and from marginalized, disadvantaged backgrounds should have access to this highly personalized, distinctive form of American higher education.

If we are serious about workforce development as an engine of progress, we must not forget that the future of work is the future of society.

Workforce development is partly about preparing people for particular jobs that are needed here and now. But it’s also about educating people so that they have expansive skill sets and the ability to innovate and adapt to a changing world. It’s about enabling people to lead imaginatively in their workplaces and communities.

The liberal arts have never been more relevant or necessary for the future.

Sonia Cardenas is acting dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs and professor of political science at Trinity College, Hartford,

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