Engaging the Employability Debate

When engaging in the employability debate (which is problematic in its own right), many departments in the Humanities and Social Sciences need to challenge what Gregory Alles calls the “narrow managerial mentality,” the assumption that qualifying for a career requires an undergraduate degree in the field of one’s career. In raising this issue, Alles distinguishes between careers that require “a high percentage of non-transferable ‘hard skills’” and careers that “require the acquisition of a larger percentage of highly transferable ‘soft skills’ and a knowledge base that has both breadth and depth. Most of the specific skills that are needed can be learned on the job, indeed, are probably best learned there” (Religion [2011] 41:2, 219-220).

A distinction, though, is vital between careers that require “hard skills” and certification from an undergraduate degree, such as public school educators, and careers that allow more creativity in an undergraduate degree because the “hard skills” come through required professional graduate degrees, such as medicine and law. Humanities and social science majors can succeed in medical school, for example, if they also take the required science and mathematics courses as electives. In fact, the soft skills can be vital in medical practice, such as recognizing the complex ways that identity labels can relate to worldviews, motivations, and practices for individuals.

In relation to these conversations, describing the significance of the “soft skills” that students acquire in Humanities and Social Science majors is essential. A recent graduate with a Religious Studies major from the University of Alabama has successfully started his own business, despite the difficult economic times, because of the critical research skills he developed in Religious Studies. Those skills were essential in developing his business plan. Other transferable “soft skills” include creative problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis of the dynamic of identity and social formation. Recognizing the relevance of the Humanities and Social Sciences for many careers requires the type of creative, critical thought in which these departments excel.