Do Tech Companies Value Humanities Degrees?

| Evan Thompson


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Sharon Rosenblatt assumed her English degree would never land her a job in the tech industry.

After all, why would a tech company need someone who knew everything about James Joyce and nothing about code? Yet, somehow, she ended up working in tech. It wasn't until later that she realized the tech industry is always looking for people with a humanities background.

"Working for a technology company made me realize the flexibility of the written word," said Rosenblatt, who is the director of communications for Accessibility Partners, a consulting company that helps make information technology accessible. "I have now written hundreds of proposals that use my thinking skills to answer technical questions with detail. Rhetoric became immensely important as I became impassioned to plead my company's capabilities."

There's a perception that people with a humanities degree — such as philosophy, literature, and economics — are unlikely to succeed in the technology-driven economy of the future because they don't have vocational skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines.

Many young people seem to have gotten the message. According to PBS, just 1 in 20 college degrees was in the humanities and liberal arts as of 2018, falling from nearly 1 in 5 in the 1960s.

But those people could be missing out on a wealth of opportunities in the tech industry. Tech companies are discovering that liberal arts skills make them stronger.

Tech hubs like Silicon Valley are increasingly hiring people with humanities degrees. As a result, more and more people like Rosenblatt are landing jobs in tech, despite not being engineers or scientists.

Why? The short answer is that humanities graduates have soft skills essential for innovating and helping organizations run well.

Why Are Humanities Degrees Valuable in Tech?

When you think about how big the tech industry is and what it takes to be successful, it makes sense that a humanities background would be valuable. The workforce can't just be engineers and scientists.

Skills in humanities can even outweigh tech expertise. According to a 2018 study by Google, STEM knowledge was the least important for corporate advancement. Instead, skills such as communication, vision, excellence in leadership, and interpersonal relationships ranked higher.

"The industry is always in need of a deeper level of 'humanization' so that stronger connections can be formed between companies and customers," said Phil Crippen, CEO of John Adams IT. "They [humanities graduates] provide a perspective that the average technology specialist probably doesn't have."

Humanities graduates bring a counterbalance to the world of big data and algorithms. Their high-order thinking and cultural understanding offset the technological expertise of engineers and scientists.

It's not enough to create and build technologies. Tech companies need workers who understand the human context of those technologies and can make them more accessible.

Humanities degrees in subjects like graphic design, English, or history foster skills that are much-needed in the tech economy, including:

  • Problem-solving
  • Written and verbal communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Emotional intelligence

"Humanities graduates, on average, seem more empathetic about the many challenges in the world around them," Crippen said. "They can apply this sort of pragmatic problem-solving to technology companies."

What Kinds of Jobs do Humanities Graduates Have in Tech?

Michelle Bourbonniere is a search engine optimization (SEO) consultant who helps optimize web content to rank higher in online searches. It's a job that requires an understanding of business, marketing, and computer science — but she didn't go to school for any of those things.

Bourbonniere holds a doctorate in African history from Stanford University. So how does she do it? By putting a tech spin on her skills from her humanities degree.

"A humanities degree, writ large, is all about crafting good arguments and backing them up with evidence," Bourbonniere said. "The research skills I learned digging through the archives are exactly the ones I use every day, digging through keyword databases. I used to edit for academics; now I edit for search engines."

Tech-influenced Jobs for Humanities Graduates

Tech job Relevant skills
Marketing manager Communication, collaboration, critical thinking
Customer service agent Empathy, communication, persuasion
Human resources analyst Communication, problem-solving, interpersonal
Information technology specialist Problem-solving, creativity, communication
Web designer Creativity, emotional intelligence, empathy

Bourbonniere carving out a niche in SEO is one example of how humanities grads can find success in tech. They thrive at jobs that require uniquely human skills.

Another example is in web design, said Michele Ramsey, associate professor of communication arts and sciences and women's studies at Penn State Berks.

Website-building software, such as Wix, Weebly, and GoDaddy, makes it possible to create websites without programming knowledge. But editorial decisions about space, color, and audience analysis — the human touch — can't be replicated by a computer program.

Humanities graduates can do that type of work well, Ramsey said. And the more you look, the more job opportunities for humanities grads appear.

"Website-builder software cannot craft persuasive links to the site via social media, build audiences and followers, write technical manuals, train others to use the technology, and encourage other businesses to link to that website and the services it offers," said Ramsey, who is the co-author of "Major Decisions: College, Career, and the Case for the Humanities."

She added, "Those jobs can, will, and do go to graduates with other majors, including majors in the humanities."

Business journalist George Anders calls these "tech-influenced jobs," including human relations specialists, technical writers, and graphic designers. Anders wrote in his 2017 book, "You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a "Useless" Liberal Arts Education," that these types of jobs are growing twice or three times as fast as the pace of overall U.S. job growth.

"Take a close look at job creation since May 2012 and you will see that the fastest-growing fields often turn out to be the ones indirectly catching the warmth of the tech revolution," Anders wrote.

Which Humanities Degrees Are Most Useful for Tech Jobs?

According to venture capitalist Scott Hartley, author of "The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World," there is a "very real and a very relevant role for you to play in tomorrow's tech economy" no matter what you study.

But some degrees or areas of expertise may lead to more opportunities in the tech workforce than others.

Robert Soares, the founder of the development services company Provided, said an understanding of foreign languages might help grasp the different syntax of programming languages. Similarly, a biology or chemistry background could mesh with structuring algorithms.

"Ideally, you want to be able to pull ideas and approaches from one field into another," Soares said. "Any degree can do well in technology. It's about bringing what's unique from your experience and applying it to your new field."

Writing-heavy humanities degrees — such as English, journalism, and communications — are valuable for jobs that require translating technical jargon into easily understood terms.

"The biggest thing for humanities students wanting to find a place in tech is to show how they can apply what they've learned to the field," said Phil Strazzulla, founder and CEO of SelectSoftware Reviews. "A good way to do this is through tech journalism, or by creating a portfolio of technical writing."

Ramsey said the people who excel in the following areas are in a "great position to succeed" in the tech industry:

  • Marketing
  • Persuasion
  • Collaboration
  • Public Relations
  • Technical writing
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Training and development
  • Advanced intercultural knowledge

Ramsey also recommends that humanities grads find ways to show their technical competency to increase their chances of landing a job in tech.

"Humanities students can make themselves even more marketable with minors in computer science or information technology, and [by enrolling in] coding bootcamps, where they can learn the basics of programming and other traditional mainstays of technology," Ramsey said.

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: Kseniya Ovchinnikova, Issarawat Tattong | Getty Images

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