The Business Case for Humanities Education

The Business Case for Humanities Education

The Business Case for Humanities Education

By Heidi Bostic and Ross Gittell

Labor shortages and skill gaps in New Hampshire have limited overall growth and the state’s ability to attract and retain growing businesses.  While high energy and other costs, and business climate factors contribute to NH’s business outlook and prospects, it is widely recognized that labor skill shortages and demography are working against the economic vitality of the state and against many employers’ ability to accept new orders and compete nationally and globally.

Russ Thibeault, president of Applied Economic Research in Laconia, has highlighted how employers at all levels in New Hampshire are having difficulty finding qualified applicants to fill skilled positions.  He calls it “the major economic issue in the state, on the top of everyone’s list of economic problems the state is facing.”

Labor force growth in NH since 2000 has been approximately 30 percent below the US average, and the unemployment rate has been consistently well below the US average.  The population is aging, with the percentage of young adults (25-44) falling from just under 31 percent - and above the US average - to under 24 percent and below the US average.  During this time, the percent of adults 65 and older has increased from 12 to over 15 percent.  Educational institutions in the state must help ensure that demographics do not work as strongly against the NH economy as current conditions and trends indicate.  One way to accomplish this crucial goal is by focusing education in the state more purposively and directly on labor market and employability needs.  We should do so in ways that distinguish the state’s work force for employers.  

The educational requirements for employment in NH are increasingly broad and deep. These requirements, often called T-shaped, combine deep specialized skills and a breadth of knowledge. This means that in addition to deep (vertical) technical and skills-based education and experience, strong and broad (horizontal) competence is critical, spanning science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as well as the humanities.  

While many NH colleges have focused on STEM education, and while community colleges in particular have focused successfully on technical and skills-based education and training, interviews with local employers and numerous recent national and international surveys tell us that employers also highly value a broad liberal arts and humanities-based education. When hiring, increasing numbers of employers seek not just technical skills but also humanistic and liberal-arts oriented capabilities such as communication skills, critical thinking, empathy, ethical judgment and the ability to work effectively in teams. In a recent Association of American Colleges and Universities survey of over 300 employers, over 90% indicated that their company was asking employees to take on more responsibilities and to use a broader set of skills than in the past and that a candidate’s capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than the particular undergraduate college major. A World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report highlighted the changing nature of work, with more focus on collaborating in teams and solving complex problems in novel ways. Work increasingly crosses disciplinary boundaries, as technical workplaces recognize the value of hiring members educated more broadly. Students and employees must integrate scientific, technical and humanistic abilities.  

NH higher education is ramping up its efforts to provide this type of T-shaped education. This goal is reflected in a new collaboration in the state between the Community College System of New Hampshire and the University of New Hampshire’s College of Liberal Arts.  Called the NH Humanities Collaborative, this effort is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, one of the leading national private foundations focused on the humanities.  The grant to New Hampshire is the first of its kind pairing a community college system with a flagship public university and it explicitly recognizes and supports the business case for humanities collaboration. Establishing NH as a model for the nation, this Collaborative will provide NH with a better educated workforce, helping the state to attract and retain talent.

How will this work? Through humanities courses and programs, we will improve community college students' ability to think and act contextually, critically and creatively, to draw logical conclusions and to inquire further in collaboration with others. By creating a humanities collaborative between the community colleges and the flagship university, community college faculty will be supported by a network of peers in their disciplines. This will improve community college academic content and quality and provide students with a stronger pathway to degree completion, humanities bachelor’s programs and fulfilling careers. 

We will also communicate to students, their families and the broader public the importance of the humanities disciplines. The humanities are part of an interconnected whole that yields a broad, deep education fostering 21st century career readiness and the ability to work with others to respond better to day-to-day work responsibilities, as well as life’s broader needs and challenges.

This is a long-term effort, with strong commitment by the Community College System of NH and UNH’s College of Liberal Arts and extended funding from the Mellon Foundation. 

We hope to work closely with businesses across the state to ensure that our curriculum and programs align with current and future workforce requirements, provide students with academic guidance that aligns with career opportunities in NH and ensure that students have meaningful internships and work-based learning opportunities.  Ultimately, the result will be graduates who will be successful professionals and entrepreneurs who contribute to a strong future for NH’s business community and quality of life.  

Heidi Bostic is Dean of the University of New Hampshire’s College of Liberal Arts.  Ross Gittell is chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire and vice president and forecast manager of New England Economic Partnership.