What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How these humanities graduates are finding jobs in Silicon Valley

Only 1 in 20 college degrees awarded today are in the humanities or liberal arts, as a perception persists that these fields don't provide marketable skills for students entering the workforce. But is this theory true? For our Future of Work series, Jeffrey Brown explores why students with "soft skills" are critical for innovating and helping organizations run effectively--even in Silicon Valley.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We hear it all the time: A degree in the liberal arts may not be the ticket in our high-tech economy.

    Many young people seem to believe it. Just one in 20 of all college degrees are now in the humanities and liberal arts, down from nearly one in five in the 1960s.

    But some experts, both scholars and tech executives, see another side to the story.

    Jeffrey Brown reports from California's Bay Area for our special series this week on The Future of Work.

  • Catie Cuan:

    The eventual goal is such that my movement, since I'm doing all this crazy movement all over the place, will actually control the robot.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Jobs of the future? Catie Cuan calls herself a robot choreographer.

  • Catie Cuan:

    We created this 3-D animation of the robot, which I can then interact with through this depth sensor.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A former professional ballet dancer, Cuan now dances with robots, doing research as a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

  • Catie Cuan:

    I move with robots in my research, and my research and my artistic work is about how those movements can either control robots or change human behavior and human conceptions of themselves.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The idea, when robots are taught graceful movements, they become less intimidating and more approachable, even friendly, important traits as humans interact with them more and more.

  • Catie Cuan:

    I think, right now, we have incredible hyperbolic, overwhelming sense of fear of robots.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You mean taking over the world, taking over jobs, taking over everything.

  • Catie Cuan:

    Right. And that fear is very real for so many people. And I think the fear is absolutely legitimate, but it's why we need artists and people from humanities backgrounds to help reframe what robots can and will be in society.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    No surprise that, at Stanford, ground zero for Silicon Valley's higher ed/high-tech connection, the biggest major by far is computer science.

    Students here, as elsewhere these days, want their studies to lead to high-paying jobs immediately.

  • Louis Newman:

    Particularly the job that they can see on the horizon right after graduation, which is often what they're focused on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Louis Newman is Stanford's director of undergraduate advising and research, and himself a religious studies scholar.

  • Louis Newman:

    We tell students all the time, don't think about the job you're looking for. Think about the job that hasn't even been created yet, because the skills that you're gaining here may well position you for something that you can't even imagine.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He says that while enrollment across the nation in history, philosophy, literature and other liberal arts majors has been falling for decades, the skills they provide are still needed in the modern work force.

  • Louis Newman:

    Thinking clearly, writing well, working well with other people, understanding diversity, working in groups, these are skills that are useful in virtually any kind of work.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You can't say to an English major or a history major or a classics major, you will get a job with that degree?

  • Louis Newman:

    We can't promise it, but we have a lot of track record to say that students with those majors have, in fact, gotten jobs.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And that includes jobs in some unexpected places.

  • Scott Harley:

    If you look at some of the senior-most leaders of companies like YouTube, where Susan Wojcicki studied literature and history, or you look at the founder of Pinterest, Ben Silbermann was a political science major. The founders of Airbnb, they studied design and art.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Scott Hartley is a venture capitalist who advises tech start-ups. He's author of a new book, "The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World."

    Hartley argues that tech companies are more and more in the business of solving large-scale human problems. Technology, seen this way, is sometimes the easy part, and getting easier. Figuring out how to use it is still key.

  • Scott Harley:

    Fluency with technology, literacy with technology, in order to get your foot in the door, is important. But if you look at sort of the growth over time, oftentimes, the leadership of these companies are people that have the ability to take a step back, have the ability to ask the right questions, have the ability to empathize with the customer.

    And these are the various things that you learn through a humanities or liberal arts type program.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One example Hartley cites, Stitch Fix, a 7-year-old company in San Francisco, with nearly three million customers, a tech-driven business, but based around retail clothing. Customers fill out surveys on their fashion preferences and are then paired with people like Layne Cross, an art history major, who now oversees more than 400 of the company's stylists.

  • Layne Cross:

    And then you can just, like, toss this off and go out to dinner with some awesome earrings.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Cross and her team prepare a so-called fix, and a box of clothes is assembled, packed, and eventually shipped out. Customers keep what they like, return what they don't.

    What's the biggest problem you all had to solve?

  • Eric Colson:

    Getting machines and humans to work together to solve this common problem.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Eric Colson is the company's chief algorithms officer. He says, along with tech skills, Stitch Fix needs people with a sense of empathy.

  • Eric Colson:

    This is what's most important to that job. You are picking clothes, not for yourself, but for your fellow human client, and you want to make sure you understand them.

    A client might write in, I need to look good, I'm going to my ex-boyfriend's wedding. Oh, wow, that's — there's a lot of meaning in that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Of course, embedded. There's a whole story embedded in that, right?

  • Eric Colson:

    There's a whole story of things they didn't say. Yet, our fellow human is going to know what that means.

    So, yes, they're in high demand here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They're in high demand, but, of course, you couldn't run the company with just philosophy majors?

  • Eric Colson:

    No, you need both. If you're on the techie side, you're going to have to learn how to work with people and learn the power of storytelling and getting people on board with your ideas. And if you're on the soft side, you're going to have to appreciate what technology can do for you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Embodying both, Stewart Butterfield, philosophy major and co-founder and CEO of Slack.

    When you were studying philosophy, you didn't imagine this kind of future. What were you thinking?

  • Stewart Butterfield:

    Well, I was thinking that I would end up a philosophy professor.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Slack is a popular chat app with more than eight million daily users, widely relied upon by companies and large organizations for internal office communications.

    What does the philosophy work that you did, how does that translate today?

  • Stewart Butterfield:

    When you're trying to work through a very complex problem, whether that's a business problem or a human problem, that helps, that ability to follow the logical chain all the way to the root.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Butterfield, who, by the way, also has a master's in philosophy, oversees a $7 billion business.

  • Stewart Butterfield:

    There's a lot of companies who started here in the Bay Area that have incredible technical abilities and have a great solution in search of a problem.

    On the other hand, you could have the greatest idea in the world, and if you're not able to implement and execute, again, it doesn't really matter. So, again, there's, like, a real marriage of all these different skills and approaches that are required to achieve this level of success.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And here at Slack, it turns out, even reading James Joyce can help, at least, according to Jaime DeLanghe.

  • Jaime Delanghe:

    I'm basically responsible for making all of the business decisions around how we help people find what they're looking for in Slack.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Search, DeLanghe says, is about language, and how it's used and intended. Now head of search learning, she was an English major in college who loved Joyce.

  • Jaime Delanghe:

    I loved the people who were more playful with language, and I think a lot of what I spend my time doing in the technical world, sort of trying to build the best product, is thinking about what is somebody typing, what are they trying to do here?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But — and this is important — DeLanghe also became fluent in the technology side of her work. She offers this advice:

  • Jaime Delanghe:

    You're not done yet, I think, if you're an English major. You have to do a little bit more thinking and reflecting on where it is you actually want to be and apply those skills, I guess, in society.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But there's hope?

  • Jaime Delanghe:

    There's totally hope . There's definitely hope.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But looking ahead, will the machines one day take even the most human of jobs?

    Back at Stanford, robot choreographer Catie Cuan isn't worried.

  • Catie Cuan:

    I mean, it becomes so circular, right, because then, at that point, maybe I will be doing something completely different I can't even comprehend yet at this point, and robot choreographer will feel superfluous or antiquated.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Maybe so.

    For now, the message here: There is hope for artists and liberal arts majors, as long as they keep moving with the latest technology.

    For the "PBS NewsHour" I'm Jeffrey Brown in California's Bay Area.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest