In the Nation's Interest

How Business Can Turnaround the Supply Chain with Liberal Arts

by MICHAEL MAIBACH and JACQUELINE PFEFFER MERRILL, Ph.D. March 28, 2017

While the business community focuses on the talent pipeline for “hard skills”, the notion that the liberal arts are no longer valuable in today’s economy has too often become conventional wisdom.

But the broad, intellectual skill-set of the liberal arts graduate is also becoming a scarce commodity – and that’s not good for business. Those involved in identifying and hiring talent often cite, with concern, the lack of analytical and communication skills among recent graduates. Too often they wonder how their new hires were given diplomas but never taught how to write in a way that would not embarrass their employers. Astonishingly, two-thirds of business leaders do not believe colleges are graduating students with the skills and competencies that meet their business needs, according to a Gallup-Lumina Foundation survey.

The supply chain connecting liberal arts to the workforce is vital—but broken. Young graduates are leaving campus without basic knowledge of US history, civics, and foreign languages. These are fields critical to engaging in the modern workplace and the global economy. The erosion of academic excellence, distractions from academia’s responsibility of preparing future leaders, and a daily torrent of news about campus turmoil and intolerance discourages alumni and others from extending support.

Employers read with confusion and dismay the names of trivial courses being taught on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, and the Kardashian family. Meanwhile, where are U.S. history and classical literature?

Higher education needs significant renewal. The liberal arts, when done properly, are excellent workforce preparation. The good news is that a turnaround strategy is within reach for concerned employers.

By using a targeted approach to philanthropy and university partnerships, businesses are beginning to secure a greater return for their investment. They are helping colleges realign their programming towards workforce needs. And, businesses can and do have the clout to insist on change: Not only do they employ graduates, corporations provide almost 20% of every donor dollar given to higher education institutions, according to the Council for Aid to Education. Here are four practical business strategies to enhance job preparation:

#1 – Align and incentivize teaching of essential skills. Businesses and aligned donors have a critical need to communicate the employment imperative to those on campus. Employer standards and hiring needs are too often opaque or unknown to academics who focus on curriculum and teaching. Employers must put their cards on the table! Business leaders must build and sustain programs that align specifically with the skills needed in future employees. If a local business isn’t getting candidates with crucial skills needed for available jobs, executives have an obligation to reach out to local higher education leaders and become clear about the skills and knowledge base they need to compete.

#2 – Target your philanthropy. Just “giving” to a university’s unrestricted general fund will bring no change at all. Purposeful giving will spark the types of systemic change employers seek. All good contracts have a clear set of mutual goals, a clear scope of work and some guarantee of performance towards those goals. Higher education supporters, too, have an opportunity to articulate a vision for the gifts they’re making, and insist that their resources support an intellectually-serious objective or campus program.

#3 – Forge 21st Century alliances. Companies that compete in the marketplace have similar needs and can have deep, collective impact when they stand united in seeking higher education reform. Pooling resources with business partners will enhance the impact of any gift.

#4 – Create partnerships that work. The Fund for Academic Renewal worked with Duke University’s Program in American Values and Institutions to provide Duke undergraduates with in-depth study of America’s political, legal, economic, and cultural institutions, and the values of equality and liberty. Committed donors made this possible, but only after they communicated their goals and values to the university.

By supporting programs that hold higher education to its highest ideals and goals, businesses are helping ensure their contributions underwrite institutions that educate students for the workforce and the informed citizenship essential for the 21st Century. When business champions arrive on campus with a check in hand, they must be clear about how those investments will ensure that students receive an intellectually-rich and rigorous education in the liberal arts. If this is done well, students, colleges, and businesses win.  

Maibach is a fellow of the International Academy of Management and previously served as president and CEO of the European-American Business Council, as well as vice president of global government affairs at the Intel Corporation. He is a member of the Donor Advisory Board for the Fund for Academic Renewal, where Pfeffer Merrill is executive director. Guest blogs are the views of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of CED.