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Paul Barter Headshot

That Arts Degree Isn't So Useless After All!

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There's an old Hollywood saying: No matter how many special effects you load up with you still need a well-written script for your movie to be a hit.

The same can be said in today's business world where techies are constantly creating disruptive new digital technologies that are transforming the landscape. But what may surprise you is that this new digital age is increasing the employment opportunities of those with a liberal arts education.

Don't get me wrong, if you want a great job that pays well, the odds are clearly in your favour if you've bet on a tech education. A degree in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) opens doors. For example, a report by the Toronto Regional Research Alliance found that for every seven job openings in engineering and IT in the Greater Toronto Area, there is just one qualified recent graduate of a post-secondary program. Demand exceeds supply and employers are fighting for available candidates.

These fields have been great at inventing new technologies and driving the cost down. But now that those technologies are mature, we need people who, with a light touch, can insert them into everyday life. Technologists are not always representative of the average consumer, and the rigor with which they approach solving technical problems doesn't always translate into solving all human problems.

Enter the liberal arts graduate. Competitive advantage in the future will come not just from firms with STEM capabilities, but from those who also mix in a healthy dose of liberal arts expertise in areas such as design, sociology, psychology, philosophy, political science, languages and history. Call these the STEAM skills (Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS and Math). Skeptical? Whether you think the biggest tech story of recent years is web search, social networking, mobile devices, content digitization or gaming, the true success of the firms at the centre of the disruption is often a function of things completely non-technical.

Apple, the world's most valuable company, has led the way in the consumerization of IT. While it's great at technology, one of Apple's primary competitive advantages is designing intuitive, easy-to-use, visually appealing products. Steve Jobs understood what consumers wanted and he surrounded himself with people grounded in the fine arts and design areas.

Take a look at Facebook, Twitter and the rest. The advent of online social networking is grounded -- not surprisingly -- in sociology. Facebook has filed for an initial public offering with a valuation that could be as much as $100 billion.

What's that value based on? Eight hundred million users who have "friended" each other! What does it mean to be a friend? What does it mean to "like" something? What does it mean to '"Poke" someone? How do we behave in a group and how do our different groups overlap?

The answer to those and other questions enable the folks at Facebook to better understand human behaviour and to constantly come up with new ideas to create value for individuals (and not surprisingly the advertisers who pay the bills) in the online world. Twitter, LinkedIn and other social sites have different mixes but are also based on some of the same sociology concepts.

Gaming is also an interesting area to study. Depending on whose numbers you believe, the gaming market today has surpassed the movie business in scale. Whether it's PC gaming, console gaming, social gaming or one of the many mobile gaming alternatives -- gaming is popular. Why? Psychology! It's one thing for a computer programmer to develop a game, but it's very much another thing for that game to be engaging and successful in a world with a myriad of options calling out for our attention.

After all, you need to understand the brain pretty well to solve that problem!

We could go on about the transformation of media industries and the explosive growth of mobile devices. In every case, the winners are companies leveraging technology but bringing real value to consumers through understanding human behaviour. In other words, today's technology made possible by scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians is increasingly being filtered through a human lens; a marriage between technology and the arts either in a single individual or in a team of people with the right mix of skills.

In the technology industry, firms are developing the same realization that Hollywood movie moguls learned long ago: special effects are cool, but great movies need more. And when the list of technological possibilities is infinite, choosing what to do becomes very difficult. To guide our businesses and product lines, we need people who can look at the world and ask: "How can we create more value for customers with real human needs and wants?" For the answers to those questions, we better have liberal arts graduates on the team.