Why Businesses Ought to Hire History Majors

We’re finally starting to wind down the academic year here at Bethel. But while this is a time of endings for professors, for many students it’s a time of new beginnings:

Resume with glasses
Licensed by Creative Commons (Flazingo)

For our seniors, it’s a time to interview with prospective employers. For high school seniors coming here in the fall, it’s a time to start signing up for their first college courses.

So today’s post is addressed at two groups of people:

  • Those in a position to hire new employees for their business
  • Parents who still have some influence over the decisions their eighteen-year olds make

Parents: I’ve read enough admissions studies to know that mothers are still the most important influence on college decisions (and fathers are #3). So I beg you to be careful about asking a seemingly innocent question (“Are you sure you can get a job with a history major?”) that will be taken very seriously by your children, perhaps to their ultimate detriment.

Employers: I know that our university graduates almost twenty times as many business as history majors, and that it’s not unusual in that respect. So I know that you’re going to come across a resume listing a major in my field and wonder what it’s doing in the same stack as people who have actually spent three or four years studying marketing, finance, or human resource management.

So to you all, let me — like the apostle Paul, with large letters — make the following argument:

Majoring in history is excellent preparation for a career in business.

Now, I’m a history professor and history department chair. I’ve got a vested interest in getting jobs for my soon-to-be alumni, and the hiring data to show the students and prospective students following behind them. Have I mentioned that 30% of our department’s graduates work in the business world? Or that history majors as a rule find their way into well-paying careers?

Carlson, What Great Brands KnowBut if you can’t believe me, believe branding expert Tracy Carlson, writing recently in the Boston Globe:

As someone who’s equal parts Wharton MBA and unrepentant Yale humanities geek, with a 30-year career in marketing and brand strategy, I’d argue that business leaders care deeply about what humanities grads have to offer — they just need to understand it in their terms.

Carlson makes arguments that are familiar to those of us who have been beating this drum for a while: e.g., that those who study history and the other humanities tend to be good at writing, an increasingly rare skill. But here are four other arguments that stood out to me and ought to stand out to recruiters (or to parents thinking ahead to the day their child will be meeting with recruiters):

If you need to connect with customers, then you should hire people who have spent their college years learning to empathize with other people: “Those who study history or fiction or immerse themselves in other cultures [and] develop skills in understanding other lives and worlds…. So while companies need data scientists, they also need the ‘dot connecting’ perspective of those who appreciate human beings in all their complexity to analyze, draw conclusions, and take action.”

In this world, you need employees who are comfortable with complexity: “A linear, instrumental mentality such as knowing protocols to solve specific problems isn’t especially helpful when the problems are big, floppy, interconnected, and changing fast. There are no right/wrong answers when it comes to interpreting an artist’s work or a historical event.” (I’d just add here that when we ask our students what they primarily take away from their historical studies at Bethel, two of the three words that come up all the time are “empathy” and “comfort with complexity.” The third is “humility.” Back to Carlson…)

Millennials — as customers and employees — want business to be meaningful“To stay sane, humanities majors will seek meaning in your company and in their roles… Let your history and lit majors loose on the workings of your business, and they’ll find the narratives that make work meaningful.” (As I’ve argued before, one distinctive feature of a liberal arts education is that it cultivates a deep sense of purpose.)

Tracy Carlson
Carlson majored in French at Yale

Finally, don’t you already have enough business and econ majors working for you?

Okay, that’s not quite how Carlson puts it — and I don’t mean to impugn our students in those fields, who are very well trained by my colleagues down the hall in our Business & Economics department. But she does suggest that offering a job to someone like a history major can add valuable diversity to a company whose work force might otherwise tend towards a homogeneity of training and viewpoints:

Hiring a humanities major instead of that next econ grad immediately broadens the range of perspectives at your company. And today, with only 6 percent of students majoring in the humanities, you’re hiring someone who’s already demonstrated some courage and distinction.

You can read the full piece here.

Let me also recommend that you read interviews our department has done with two alumni who have reached positions of leadership in the business world: Brandon Raatikka (a VP of a local company that does due diligence for investors) and Tim Goddard (a marketing VP in the software industry). Hearkening back to some of Carlson’s argument, for example, Brandon had this to say about complexity and communication:

…the biggest things I took away from my education at Bethel were how to think more critically about situations where the right “answer” isn’t always apparent, and how to write well (as you get a lot of practice writing in history classes). Apart from certain financial and accounting aspects of it, business is largely a “soft” science. Training in history and other humanities gets one comfortable dealing with ambiguities. It helps you assess the significance of facts and order their importance relative to other facts. Being able to focus on the big picture, while still knowing how the small details relate to that big picture, is a huge advantage in business, and something that studies in history can train one to do. 

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