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Condemned to be free: Social sciences and humanities graduates on the job market

Commentary/Opinion by

As the tired idiom goes, “freedom ain’t free.” The cost of freedom is total responsibility. It’s a cost many social sciences and humanities (SSH) students are familiar with, finding that their degree’s broad applicability is, in fact, paradoxically limiting.

A February 2018 report by The Conference Board of Canada found that SSH students have a tougher time transitioning to the job market than STEM or business students. But McGill’s Arts students shouldn’t necessarily rush to transfer faculties. The report also found that in the long run, counter to the “barista” stereotype, SSH students do just fine: The report states that  “SSH graduates have job satisfaction levels similar to graduates from other disciplines” and even “greater long-term income stability” than graduates with STEM and business degrees. Their trouble transitioning to employment isn’t because their degrees aren’t valuable—it’s because they don’t know what they know, much less how to sell it. The data show that the earlier they learn this skill, the better. At the same time, employers can take easy steps to bridge the gap between their needs and students’ degrees.

[Social sciences and humanities students’] trouble transitioning to employment isn’t because their degrees aren’t valuable—it’s because they don’t know what they know, much less how to sell it.

Arts students learn plenty of marketable skills, including written and verbal communication, critical thinking, problem solving, research—the list goes on. Moreover, these skills are applicable to a much wider range of careers than those learned in STEM degrees, which is exactly what gives SSH students trouble—they have too many options. The report explains that these students often don’t realize how many in-demand skills they have. Essay writing doesn’t just build literacy skills: Developing a unique argument takes creativity.

Fortunately, resume-writing is a teachable skill. Services like McGill’s Career and Planning Services (CaPS) and the Carrefour Jeunesse-Emploi in Montreal provide free and effective career counselling. SSH students are great at communicating in English—less so in corporate doublespeak.

Here, employers can help, by clarifying exactly what skills they want from candidates. The language of the job market is awash with murky euphemisms: Postings seek “results-oriented, dynamic self-starters,” sometimes with “leadership skills”—a paradoxically ubiquitous requirement. Corporate jargon is more than just tiresome—it’s alienating. A March 2017 report by the British charity Business in the Community found that gaudy sentences in job postings—such as “query responses in adherence to SLAs and archiving conducted in accordance to file protocols”—turn off young people from applying, since applicants don’t believe that they have the right skills for the job. This is unfortunate, especially given that the linguistic monstruosity above roughly translates to “reply to emails and put them in files.” As job vacancies rise, employers need candidates as much students need jobs; companies can’t afford to lose out on qualified employees who underestimate their own skills. It is in both parties’ best interests to advertise opportunities in an accessible way.

A lack of self-marketing savvy might explain why, according to the report, faculty estimate their students’ marketable skills more favourably than the students themselves. Instructors have learned over their long careers of teaching that course content is only part of what their students gain from their degrees.

Business, engineering, and computer science degrees prepare students for specific career paths. Sure, there’s plenty of variety within these fields, but they all teach students explicitly defined “hard” skills, from C++ to making autoregressive forecasting models. This is perhaps most true of engineering, a licensed profession: Engineers Canada ensures complete and nationally standard curricula across the country. While this hyper-concentrated education can narrow graduates’ options, it can also be an advantage, as students are streamed into specific professions with broadly similar responsibilities across employers. No computer-science major has ever wondered what to plug into a job search engine—not so for McGill’s lone Italian Studies major, I’d imagine. (Seriously, there’s only one. Go you!)

The Conference Board’s report should come as a relief to SSH students concerned about their future employability: They do have marketable skills, even if they don’t realize it. In any case, SSH students can be confident in their degrees’ value; as the Conference Board put it, “[in] today’s increasingly complex world, we need the skills of SSH graduates more than ever.”  

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