English majors at work: testimonials from the business world

English majors (and liberal arts majors generally) bring valuable and rewarding skills and abilities to the world of work.  See the articles and surveys below.


“The biggest differentiator in business now is good writing”

Jeffrey Selingo, author of There Is Life After College, which “explores how today’s young adults need to navigate school in order to succeed in the job market of tomorrow,” writes in the Washington Post about the importance of good writing.  He describes a conversation in which the owner of a government contracting business complains about how difficult it is to find good writers, and notes that although he was a math major, “the biggest differentiator in business now is good writing.”  Selingo also points out that “the Conference Board has found in its surveys of corporate hiring leaders that writing skill is one of the biggest gaps in workplace readiness,” and adds, “That’s why so many employers now explicitly ask for writing and communications skills in their job advertisements.  An analysis by Burning Glass Technologies, which studies job trends in real time by mining data from employment ads, found that writing and communications are the most requested job requirements across nearly every industry, even fields such as information technology and engineering.”

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“Essential human skills

A recent report on work now and in the future published by Deloitte (a multinational professional services firm which is one of accounting’s Big Four) emphasizes the importance of skills at the core of a liberal arts education—and skills crucial to an English major.  Rewriting the rules for the digital age, the 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report and survey, highlights “essential human skills, such as creative and ethical thinking,” and says that the workforce of the future will need “general purpose skills such as problem solving skills, cre­ativity, social skills, and emotional intelligence.”  Nothing develops such skills better than majoring in English. 

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Companies: "Send us a writing sample"

A CNBC article entitled “Why Johnny can’t write, and why employers are mad” cites employers who say they can’t find qualified candidates for their jobs, and adds that often the problem is applicants’ “inadequate communication skills”: “In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates’ inability to speak and write clearly.”

The article quotes William Ellet, who teaches writing at Brandeis International Business School and previously taught writing at Harvard Business School, about the importance of writing to companies: “Recruiters and companies are saying, ‘Send us a writing sample, and if you don’t meet our standards for communication, we are not hiring you.’”

It also refers to a previous article (“Jobs skills gap: The basics become a problem”) which described a telephone survey of 500 top executives. Of those surveyed, 92 percent said there was a “gap” in the skills of the American workforce, and nearly half of those pointed to a gap in “communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.”

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English, beers and careers

Or, From Moby-Dick to Dogfish . . .
Sam Calagione, the founder of the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and winner of a prestigious James Beard award in 2017 (for “Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional”), was an English major and M.A. student (Muhlenberg and Columbia) who connects his literary studies to the business world’s need to tell stories. This “rock star of the beer world” (Vanity Fair), who told the Philadelphia Inquirer that if he weren’t a brewer he would be an English teacher, said, “Look at any successful entrepreneur, and you realize that branding is storytelling.” Similarly, while telling The Atlantic that he also might have become a writer of fiction, he explained, “there is no greater example of a work of fiction than a business plan. As an entrepreneur you write it, then you spend your life trying to turn it into a work of non-fiction.” And, as he put it to Vanity Fair, having an English degree has helped him communicate with his customers: “I think it’s a lot easier to have conversations about beer as a liquid art” than about making beer as a “scientific process”: “If you can make the liquid as enticing as the story, that’s the formula for success.”

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"I Love Hiring English Majors"

Bracken Darrell, the CEO of Logitech, tells Business Insider he loves hiring English majors: "The older I get, the more I realize the power of words and the power of words in making you think . . . the best CEOs and leaders are extremely good writers and have this ability to articulate and verbalize what they're thinking."

Moreover, Darrell (who also recommends supplementing a liberal arts education) describes "a thoughtfulness about culture that isn't emphasized in majors outside literature and the arts. This understanding of people will affect how you connect to others, which plays a role in your influence and leadership skills."

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"Why English majors are the hot new hires"

Last week Bruna Martinuzzi, founder of Clarion Enterprises and author of two business books, posted an article entitled “Why English Majors are the Hot New Hires.”

She notes that “Recently, some high-profile businesspeople came out in favor of hiring English majors,” explaining that employers “are looking to hire English majors because these applicants bring a set of skills that businesses need.”  She lists five areas:

  • Communications skills.  “Communication is at the heart of any business. . . .  Bringing an English major to the fold is a much needed salve for organizations today, where poor communication skills are the norm rather than the exception.”
  • Writing skills.  In a recent survey, “97 percent of business executives rate writing skills as very important. English majors—perhaps more than any other major—are trained to write well.”
  • Researching skills.  “Having someone on staff who excels in conducting research is a very viable asset.”
  • Critical thinking skills.  “The ability to analyze an issue and question assumptions applies to all kinds of information in a business setting.”
  • Empathy.  Recent research suggests that “those who read fiction frequently have higher levels of cognitive empathy,” which “improves interpersonal understanding and enhances relationships with customers and business associates.  When you hire an English major, you're likely hiring someone who brings cognitive empathy to the table.”

Martinuzzi also suggests that English majors can get an additional competitive advantage by combining an English major with courses in other areas. 

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"Why I Hire English Majors"

Steve Strauss, a business expert, begins “Why I Hire English Majors” (Huffington Post, June 2013) by saying “I love English majors. I love how smart they are. I love their intellectual curiosity. And I love their bold choice for a major. Most of all, I love to hire them.”

He lists several reasons:

  • English majors know how to write;
  • English majors “know how to think, to think for themselves, and how to analyze a problem”;
  • English majors “are interesting, well spoken, can take a position and defend it with logic and reason, are (obviously) well read, and are, well, pleasant to be around.”

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The high satisfaction of English graduates in their careers

Sheryl I. Fontaine and Stephen J. Mexal reported on a survey of alumni who had been English majors at California State University, Fullerton in “The Starbucks Myth: Measuring the Work of the English Major” (ADE Bulletin, 2012; login required).  They found not only a low unemployment rate, but also that these former majors had a high degree of satisfaction in their work and that they often use what they learned as English majors:  “The vast majority…saw a high degree of crossover between the skills they cultivated as an English major and the skills they now deemed important to professional success.”

Besides what you’d expect—such as the value of writing and of analytic reading—these alumni referred to other skills that were very important to their professions and that they reported developing to a great extent as English majors:

  • the ability to learn independently;
  • the ability to consider things from others’ perspectives;
  • the ability to entertain multiple conflicting views;
  • the ability to think logically; and
  • creativity and imagination.

The alumni also found their work to be “meaningful and remunerative”  Here are the (rounded) figures for alumni being very satisfied or satisfied with various elements of their work: 84% with the “substantive content of [their] work,” 84% with the “overall direction of [their] career,” 66% with their “current salary.”  “Most, nearly 74%, felt that their English degree had been ‘extremely important’…or ‘very important’…in their professional lives.  Given the chance to do it all again, an overwhelming majority of respondents (96.8%) said they would recommend the English major to others, and less than one percent (0.65%) said they would recommend instead a ‘more practical’ major, like business.”

Finally, “business was the most commonly reported major from which students changed to become English majors.  Yet despite choosing English as an apparent escape from business, many of our alumni ended up working in business in one form or another.  Perhaps their inclination toward business was not redirected away from a major in business so much as it was rerouted through a major in English.  As one alumnus explained, ‘Developing more cultural literacy [as an English major] in many areas has been so important. It has helped me to understand the world around me, the times we live in, and to appreciate the richness of life.’”

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"English majors are exactly the people I'm looking for"

In “How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities” (The Wall Street Journal, October 2012; login required), Michael S. Malone tells what happened when he invited his friend Santosh Jayaram to talk to his students.  Jayaram, Malone writes, “is the quintessential Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur: tech-savvy, empirical, ferociously competitive, and a veteran of Google, Twitter and a new start-up, Dabble.”  So Malone was worried that Jayaram might discourage students in an English class.  But, as Malone recounts, “Santosh said, ‘Are you kidding? English majors are exactly the people I'm looking for.’”

Malone describes Jayaram’s reasoning: “Twenty years ago, if you wanted to start a company, you spent a month or so figuring out the product you wanted to build, then devoted the next 10 or 12 months to developing the prototype, tooling up and getting into full production.”  But “Most products now are virtual, such as iPhone apps,” and lots of people anywhere in the world can construct them.  The most important thing happens before you built the app, because you need to find investors and partners, explain to them and to coders what you want to build, and think about marketing your product—“and you have to do all of that without an actual product. ‘And how do you do that?’  Santosh said. ‘You tell stories.’  Stories, he said, about your product and how it will be used that are so vivid that your potential stakeholders imagine it already exists and is already part of their daily lives.  Almost anything you can imagine you can now build, said Santosh, so the battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do, to storytelling, for which many fewer people have real talent.  ‘That's why I want to meet your English majors,’ he said.”

Malone concludes: “Asked once what made his company special, Steve Jobs replied: ‘It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.’”

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The importance of critical thinking and writing

A 2012 Wall Street Journal article entitled “Wealth or Waste? Rethinking The Value of a Business Major” describes the importance of a liberal arts background and the kinds of things that English majors learn.  Corporations want to hire students who have developed “critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses”: “Companies say they need flexible thinkers with innovative ideas and a broad knowledge base derived from exposure to multiple disciplines. . . .  companies in consulting, technology and even finance say they're looking for candidates with a broader academic background.” 

Recruiters, the article also notes, “have been seeking well-rounded candidates from other disciplines, such as English, economics and engineering.”

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Innovative thinking and Shakespeare

In a post for the Harvard Business Review, Tony Golsby-Smith. founder and CEO of Second Road, a business design and transformation firm, addresses “business leaders around the world” who have told him they need “innovative thinkers,” telling them they need “people with the right backgrounds”—those from the humanities who, say, “study Shakespeare's poetry, or Cezanne's paintings.” Such people "have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can't be analyzed in conventional ways”; they can help businesses in a number of ways, including these:

  • appreciating “complexity and ambiguity,” because “any great work of art—whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual—challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture”;
  • thinking innovatively, because they “are trained to be creative”;
  • communicating, in part because “a focus on writing…helps people develop persuasive arguments”;
  • understanding customers and other employees, because what you need is “keen powers of observation and psychology—the stuff of poets and novelists.”

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The value of English

  • An article on salary.com entitled “8 College Degrees That Will Earn Your Money Back” cites English as one of eight “8 college degrees with great Return on Investment.”  (The article also makes an important larger point that goes beyond questions of money: “When all is said and done, the best way to get the biggest bang for your education buck is to truly love what you do.”)
  • A survey done by Millennial Branding and Experience Inc. shows that “30% [of companies] are recruiting liberal arts majors” (while “only 18% are recruiting finance and accounting majors combined”), and that when employers are asked “what skills are you looking for when you hire” and “what skills are hardest to find, but most important to you,” they respond most often with “communication skills” (98% and 91%, respectively)—the very sorts of skills English majors are known for.

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More writing in MBA training

When the dean of the Wharton School of business at Penn, Thomas Robertson, was asked by The Wall Street Journal who pushed Wharton to strengthen its training in presentations and writing skills, he singled out what English majors learn: "probably most importantly, our business community and our recruiters are saying that [they] want students who can read and write.... Maybe Powerpoint and writing in bullet style has led to deterioration of the ability to write reports."

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