When the economy sputtered into a recession in the early 1980s, college graduates with computer, business or technical degrees had at least some chance of landing a good job straight out of college. For the liberal arts graduate, the job market was a cheerless place indeed.
Today, the liberal arts degree has notably greater value in the employment market, thanks to a stronger economy and a turnaround in many employers' views of the liberal arts diploma.
A number of companies, frustrated with the poor writing and problem-solving skills of many graduates with business and technical backgrounds, have recently stepped up efforts to recruit holders of liberal arts diplomas. Many are willing to invest time in teaching such recent graduates the basics of their business, in hopes of filling the companies' need to maintain a large pool of junior and mid-level managers with a broad range of skills.
"Arguably, at least, this is the wave of the future," said Jonathan Palmer, a career development official at Claremont McKenna College in Pomona. "Lots of employers are coming back to the liberal arts graduate."
As a consequence, some career placement officials are advising college students that they may want to go directly into the job market rather than enroll in post-graduate study right after they receive their diploma.
A major in business or accounting probably still makes it easier for college graduates to land a job straight out of school, said Karen Strauss, career counselor at New York University. But a liberal arts major--by developing skills in communicating and problem solving--"may do more for a career over the long run," she said.
Some companies even prefer liberal arts graduates over job candidates holding master's of business administration from second-tier business schools. "Demand is still strong for MBA graduates of the best schools, but there's been some unhappiness with what some other business school graduates can do," Palmer said.
Several kinds of companies offer management training programs for which liberal arts majors may qualify.
Toward the low end of the salary spectrum, the big department store chains hire liberal arts graduates for their management training programs, paying them beginning salaries of roughly $17,000 to $23,000 per year. Trainees typically spend half a year or more as assistant department managers; they often spend an equal amount of time learning the basics of merchandise buying.
Paid slightly more are management trainees taken on by marketers of products for businesses, such as office and industrial equipment suppliers, career planning officials say. Such firms pay starting salaries of about $25,000 a year and concentrate on developing skills in sales and marketing.
Marketers of consumer and business products are also eager to hire liberal arts graduates--or holders of any other bachelor's degree--for sales jobs. Such positions, which typically pay in the low $20,000 range and are based on commissions, can lead to management jobs.
An unusual management training program is offered by SmithKline Beckman Corp., a health-care concern based in Philadelphia.
The company, which employs hundreds in scientific and highly technical positions, nonetheless accepts only liberal arts graduates for its central management training program. (Some company subsidiaries have their own programs.)
"Our experience has been that the liberal arts majors are adaptable and, when they are put to work on research, can get results," said Louis Manzi, the company's manager of corporate college relations.
SmithKline's program hires 12 to 15 graduates a year and exposes them to a variety of tasks in different company units over a period of two years. Afterward, they are assigned permanent positions, depending on the company's needs and their interests and aptitude.
While book and magazine publishers recruit a certain number of liberal arts graduates for editorial positions, such jobs are not abundant even in New York, the center of the publishing world. Most such entry-level openings are for editorial assistants, who are paid between $15,000 and $20,000 to handle the most basic editing tasks.
Advertising agencies recruit liberal arts and communications majors for entry-level copy-writing jobs and other posts. But career counselors say such jobs also are hard to find and are highly competitive.
In contrast, college career development offices list an abundance of jobs for schoolteachers. "We may post more education jobs than all other kinds put together," said d'Esta Love, director of career development at Pepperdine University.
For some jobs, liberal arts graduates face stiff competition from business majors and holders of MBAs.
Clorox Co., the Oakland consumer products firm, fills up to 20 entry-level marketing jobs each year, with 75% of those going to MBAs and the remainder divided between business and liberal arts majors, said Tim Johnston, a Clorox college relations specialist.