MSU expert has surprising advice about liberal arts degrees, job hunting

Phil Gardner is the director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. For the past 23 years, he has overseen MSU’s annual college labor market study, a much-watched barometer of the job market for college graduates and the health of the overall labor market.

Gardner spoke with Bridge correspondent Rick Haglund about the current prospects of college graduates and other issues related to talent development in Michigan.

Bridge: What are the job prospects for students graduating from college in the spring?

A: The job market has gradually gotten better. We’re seeing employers being more active on campus. That’s a good sign. Students have opportunities, but we’re not out of the woods yet. We’re not seeing the numbers of jobs that we need.

There has been a heavy surge in internships. The majority of employers at career fairs are looking for interns. That’s a signal that in a year or two, things will be much better.

Bridge: The sluggish job market and escalating college costs have created a lot of discussion about whether a four-year degree is worth it. What’s your view?

A: If you’re going to base the value of college on your first job, that’s not a very good measure.

All of the data show that your lifelong earnings are better if you graduated from college. We’ve eliminated any decent sort of jobs that high school graduates can get.

I think there is still value in the liberal arts. Companies on the East and West coasts are hiring a new kind of a professional that we don’t hear as much about in the Midwest.

IBM has gone from manufacturing to a systems, problem-solving approach in its business. Thirty-five percent of its people have social science and humanity degrees. They’re not all engineers and computer scientists.

Companies like IBM are looking for people who have mastered a discipline, have strong communication skills and skill sets that allow them to work across boundaries. Those are liberal arts skills.

Liberal arts also provide a lot of creativity and advancements in communications that spread to other areas of the university. We’ll lose that if we eliminate the liberal arts. We need to be careful what wish for.

Bridge: Should everyone go to college?

A: Way too many students are starting out at four-year colleges. Rather than do that, many people should start at a two-year college and then get a job where they can develop their skills and figure out what they’re best at doing. Then they can go back and get a four-year degree.

Bridge: How has the process changed for young people seeking to land their first full-time job?

A: I use this example: When I was in college years ago, I only had to learn how to master the requirements for my major. I was not expected to have an internship. I didn’t need previous work experience.

I landed a job and was given training. I was expected to stay in that job five or six years while I learned the work. You didn’t move from job to job.

Today there is little or no training. Work is organized differently. You need to know how to do the job, but you also need the interpersonal and soft skills everyone talks about. Those skills are critical.

The pace of work is much faster. The skills required and the performance expectations are much higher now. You’re expected to hit the ground running. It’s asking a lot of 22- and 23-year-olds.

Bridge: We hear a lot about the “brain drain” from Michigan. Where are graduates from Michigan universities going?

A: We had a deep recession and a lot of outsourcing of jobs. Opportunities changed and graduates had no choice but to leave. The majority of them stay in the Great Lakes states. A huge number of them are in Chicago. They’re also going to places like Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

The good news is we have seen small Michigan employers emerge to recruit on campus. They’re more vibrant than people thought. It’s an opportunity we’ve ignored because we’ve been enamored with big companies.

Michigan has a long way to go to recapture its lost graduates. Because of the decade of decline we went through, it’s going to hurt for a long time. We lost a significant part of a population cohort that was needed for economic growth.

Bridge: What do graduates want in a career and where do they want to live?

A: It depends on who you ask and the economic situation. Students who are farther out from graduation say they want challenging work and to be with people they like.

Salary becomes more important as they get closer to a job search. Benefits are something their parents want for them. Students are much wiser about benefits than they used to be, but they probably need more knowledge.

They like to be in urban areas more so than before. They do like Chicago. Detroit doesn’t have the same dynamics. Minneapolis-St. Paul has moved up the list of where graduates are going. Some are going to Los Angeles and New York.

They do want to be near family. Chicago is not too far away. Some students joke that Chicago should be part of Michigan because it shares our lake.

Communities like East Lansing and Ann Arbor are natural places to attract young professionals. There are students who go to Detroit because they want to make a difference. But we’re not seeing the mass numbers there yet. Detroit is way behind Pittsburgh and other cities that have reinvented themselves.

Even kooky ideas like high-end organic farms are good for Detroit. That begins to change the culture and the atmosphere for success.

Bridge: What’s your best advice to young people looking for a job or career?

A: Those approaching graduation need to have experiences in their background to launch themselves into careers. They need internships, but not just any old internship. It needs to be challenging, although it doesn’t necessarily need to match up with a job they’re seeking.

Students need to develop a good job search strategy early on. They can’t start just before graduation.

The early career is chaotic and ambiguous. Students are almost learning 24/7. Four years in college is just a down payment on lifelong learning.

They need to work on their communications skills. They have to learn how to talk to adults that are not their parents. They need to learn how to negotiate a compensation package. It all happens rapidly.

Students have to learn how to be really adaptable and accept change. They need various life experiences, such as studying abroad or volunteering in situations that they’ve never experienced before.

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Thu, 03/14/2013 - 11:35am
Thank you Rick for an insightful article. There has been so much emphasis in the past decade on the importance of math, science and technology that people forget the importance of critical thinking and communication skills that come from a liberal arts background. While the world will need more scientists; high levels of emotional and social intelligence cannot be underestimated. One can be a brilliant mathematician, researcher or engineer but if the capacity is not available to communicate or teach this information to others, then it is for naught.
Charles Richards
Thu, 03/14/2013 - 12:42pm
"IBM has gone from manufacturing to a systems, problem-solving approach in its business. Thirty-five percent of its people have social science and humanity degrees. They’re not all engineers and computer scientists." This is all very well, but I would liked to have known how the two groups compare in pay.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 03/17/2013 - 2:19pm
So what is so surprising?
Anne Bickle
Mon, 03/18/2013 - 11:32am
Many Detroiters shop in Chicago, which tells us something. There also is a HUGE contingent of U-M folks in Los Angeles. I attended a wedding and out of 120 guests, 100 were Michigan natives and graduates of U-M - and all lived in LA. The bride told me that LA has tons of Michiganders who meet regularly or gather to watch the Red Wings and Tigers.