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Guide to Education

Successful careers require liberal approach

Monday, March 5, 2001

Unemployment rates are low and demand for technical skills is high, but is a specialized degree going to guarantee you a solid career? Not necessarily.

Educators and employers alike say that despite the trend toward specialization in certain fields, young people are most likely to profit in today's market by taking an increasingly broad approach to acquiring skills.

"Of course, they have to be well-grounded in a specific discipline," says Kimberly Barrett, vice-provost of student affairs at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.

"But employers are also looking for people who are able to deal with people. They need to be information literate, integrate what they're doing more effectively."

How students interact with faculty and classmates, what extracurricular activities or work or volunteer experiences they pursue, are more than ever an opportunity, Barrett feels, to prepare for a changed corporate workplace where the traditional hierarchy has been shaken up and staff are needed to contribute outside the old functional silos.

Could we be talking here about something as startling and improbable as a rise in market value for a grounding in the liberal arts? You bet, says Glen Kelleway, a co-op program co-ordinator at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

"We need the broad-based skills, and yes, we need individuals with liberal arts backgrounds. You need to keep learning. And once you've learned how to learn, you can do a lot of learning on your own."

The changing work environment keeps producing the revelation that narrow skills in a discipline, even among the in-demand fields, are not really enough any more. Brilliant dot-com companies founder for lack of marketing and management skills, engineers without business knowledge go broke, even scientists have lesser careers without a capacity for communication.

Evidence of this is that universities have been crafting previously unknown degree programs to this end, such as an MBA for science and technology grads at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"Most of the people in the program have about five years' work experience," notes Diane Cross, director of the program, which attracts students with engineering and bachelor of science credentials. "They have great experience but they want to make the next step into decision making."

The term "profession" has long obscured the point that many lawyers, architects, scientists and engineers end up needing to run a business -- and traditionally had nearly zero background in that dimension of their careers.

"We teach them the traditional business skills," Cross says. "Accounting, economics, human resources, operations management, negotiation."

If it all sounds like more education than ever is needed to shape a satisfactory career, you're hearing it right. Even fields that not so long ago required virtually no qualification at all are looking for more and more schooling.

"When I started in human resources in 1980, I just happened to be a warm body in the right place," says Paul Juniper, vice-president of professional standards for the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario in Toronto. "You just put people in there."

Since 1990, HRPAO has offered a certification that has become a requirement -- along with a university degree -- in many workplace contexts in the province. HR itself is a good example of how most occupations have become more complex and require a more diverse educational background: Even as the technical side relating to compensation programs and the like has mushroomed, the function has become more broadly strategic in many businesses.

"Everything is happening very fast," Juniper says. "Our designation has been in place 10 years and we think we have to do a comprehensive reworking of it. Today, a good technical education is necessary but not sufficient."

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