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Oh, the humanities: What employers want

When business leaders are asked what they really want in employees, they list qualities — not majors

April 2, 2019

By Matt Watson

What do employers want?

In her first year as president of Metropolitan State University of Denver, Janine Davidson, Ph.D., asked a group of Colorado business leaders exactly what they’re looking for in prospective employees, and they responded with a list of qualities, not qualifications.

They listed in-demand technical skills such as cybersecurity training and data analytics, but then they also listed critical thinking, creativity, a global perspective, cognitive flexibility, cross-disciplinary abilities and ethics.

While most job applications specify a handful of degree types as preferred qualifications, executives are more concerned about what potential employees can do than what they have on their resumes. 


 RED’s special report “Oh, the humanities” explores the importance of these fields of study in three “Whats:”

What’s the ROI?  |  What employers want  |  What’s lost without them?


People skills

When asked what he looks for in employees, Rob Cohen, chairman and CEO of IMA Financial Group Inc., says communication and critical thinking are vital to client services. IMA provides financial services in the United States and internationally.

“Critical thinking is necessary to be able to listen, comprehend and solve our clients’ most critical challenges,” he says. “Good communications skills are important so that once we have solutions for our clients, we are able to share them in an efficient and effective manner.”

At Arrow Electronics, the top-ranked Colorado-based company in the Forbes 500 list and a Forbes Top Regarded Company in 2018, the first attributes that come to mind for President of Global Supply Chain Services Alan Bird are common sense and work ethic.

“Those are two things that are desperately needed in the workforce. Quite frankly, I don’t need the most brilliant person in the world, but I need someone with strikingly good common sense and work ethic,” Bird says. “One of the first things I look at for people coming out of college is where they worked throughout college. I don’t care if they’re a busboy, they’re cutting grass, they’re waiting tables – I want you to have done something. That demonstrates work ethic.”

Bird suggests students study something they’re interested in, even if they can’t see it translating into a 50-year career. You can always change jobs later – most people change jobs often anyway, even if they’re not changing fields.

“I tell every college student, ‘Make sure you graduate. I don’t care what you graduate in or really even where you graduate from. By graduating and getting the piece of paper, you have proven that you have the capacity to learn, and as an employer that’s really important to me,’” Bird says.

Abby Wurmnest works in talent acquisition for nonprofits such as Developmental Pathways, which serves people with developmental disabilities and their families. Wurmnest’s team looks for employees who are first and foremost mission-oriented but also prioritizes communication, adaptability and interpersonal skills.

“They need to want to make a difference. They need to be dedicated, collaborative, relationship-focused and compassionate,” Wurmnest says. “These skills are how the work gets done. If you do those things, you are efficient and effective at what you do.”

The Blue Bench, a sexual assault prevention and care center with a community-outreach team, looks for a similar skill set.

“We look for candidates with strong communication and active-listening skills. … We also want candidates with a high level of emotional intelligence,” says the Blue Bench’s Sarah Stapp. “We do our work as a team and want to maintain a positive and supportive work environment.”

Quality control

Joe Rice, director of government relations for Lockheed Martin Space, can personally vouch for the benefits of a humanities degree. Rice has a degree in history from the MSU Denver, where he’s also the alumni representative to the Board of Trustees.

His career has included local and state government in Colorado as well as setting up a municipal government in Iraq as an officer in the Army.

“I suggest to people, ‘Follow an academic path because it interests you, but you also need to have an idea of how you are going to translate that in the marketplace,’” Rice says. “There is a role for every degree in the job market. Starbucks, Walmart, Lockheed Martin … we all have communications departments. We all have HR departments. We have finance, legal, logistics and transportation. Somebody who studied one of those degrees needs to understand how to get a job.”

That includes students studying STEM and business, who might think their major courses are all they need to be a successful professional. Lockheed Martin requires its employees, including engineers, to complete internal training on giving presentations and other such skills.

“Communication is critical. You can have the best idea in the world, but what good is it if you can’t communicate it?” says Rice, who adds that students in any field need to know how to translate their skills to the workforce. “They have the best opportunity to get a job if they think about how they’re going to operationalize their skills and plug them into a career.”

NEXT: What’s lost without the humanities?


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