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The preeminent path to good-paying careers

The preeminent path to good-paying careers looks more like rock climbing than climbing a career ladder. More ad hoc and non linear than predictable and linear.

What makes successful careers for most of us are our second and third jobs, not our first. And second and third job skills tend to be very different than first job skills. For most what gets you a promotion is a combination of rock climbing with a liberal arts base.

Phi Beta Kappa recently hosted a panel of career rock climbers in a wide variety of professional and managerial occupations moderated by George Anders, the author of the terrific book You Can Do Anything: The surprising power of the “useless liberal arts education. The description by the panelists (none of them white males) of their career paths is really worth watching.

As I watched the panel it struck me that their descriptions of how they put together successful careers is a story high school and college students, particularly those from non-affluent households, never hear. And yet the path the panelists are taking is now the preeminent path to good-paying careers.

At the very least, the story we are telling others’ kids that you need to go into STEM or the skilled-trades is way too narrow. The reality is that today’s high-paid jobs are concentrated in a wide variety of professional and managerial occupations, a majority of which are not in STEM fields.

But even for those in STEM-related occupations, the liberal arts are essential to their career path. Two of the four panelists are in STEM fields, but with a liberal arts education. And if you listen to them the liberal arts skills are, at least, as important to their success as their STEM skills. 

This, of course, is consistent with Google’s research findings that the most important characteristics of their most successful employees are all so-called soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

The panelists career paths are also consistent with Harvard’s David Demings findings that:

The advantage for STEM (science, technology, engineering and
mathematics) majors fades steadily after their first jobs, and by
age 40 the earnings of people who majored in fields like social
science or history have caught up. … Although liberal arts majors start slow, they gradually catch up to their peers in STEM fields. This is by design. A liberal arts education fosters valuable “soft skills” like problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability. Such skills are hard to quantify, and they don’t create clean pathways to high-paying first jobs. But they have long-run value in a wide variety of careers.

Demings’ “problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability” have clearly been far more important to the career success of the four panelists than technical first-job skills. It’s not that those first-job, occupation-specific skills don’t matter, but they are not the foundation skills for a good-paying career.

The foundation skills are increasingly generalist skills, not specialists skills. The ability to spot and take advantage of opportunities––many times with a different employer and/or in a different field––combined with the ability to work with, problem solve with, create with and lead people that don’t look like you and don’t think like you

We need to figure out a way to get stories like those of the four panelists and this pathway in front of non-affluent students. If we don’t, we are taking off the table for them the path to many of the good-paying jobs of today and tomorrow.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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