How a liberal arts education saved my career again and again

College graduation season is upon us and with it discussions about the importance of educating young people for the so called “jobs of the future.” With a daughter half way through college, I have plenty to worry about in terms of her future. Yet I am here to make a last stand for a liberal arts education, the one thing that has saved my career again and again.

The tech world is abuzz with the idea of systems that can automate the discovery of talented programmers, those keyboard tapping whiz-kids who author the computer code that runs much of our increasingly technologically-dependent lives. Locating and hiring young people for jobs that pay six figures appears to be a win-win for the companies and for the young adults who vault into the high paying working world without a college degree.

The April 27, 2013 edition of the New York Times reported on one such success story, noting “The company made Mr. Dominguez a job offer right away, and he accepted a position that pays around $115,000 a year. “ According to the entrepreneur developing one such talent hunting technology “He’s a symbol of someone who is smart, highly motivated and yet, for whatever reason, wasn’t motivated in high school and didn’t see value in college.”

The young man will certainly do well earning six figures for the next ten or fifteen years but after that he will be well served to keep in mind the ongoing debate about age discrimination in the Information Technology industry. Whether such bias exists is debated, but research shows that IT hiring managers have a clear preference for workers with less than ten years of experience.

Today’s young keyboard wizard will be tomorrow’s unemployed, put out of a job like the auto worker, textile mill worker, buggy-whip maker or typesetter, all of whom were displaced by technological change. Yes, our economy is built on the kind of creative destruction that displaces workers as it drives so much of our innovation. Having watched my own career specialty be transformed by technology, I know what the young programmer has to look forward to.

I am a professional publication photographer, having once made a good living through the expertise I had developed in light, lenses, optics and exposure, an expertise that few people had at the time. I entered the world of publication photography working for newspapers and parlayed my experience and my liberal arts education into working for magazines, where the photographer’s authorship and understanding of the subject matter is as important as their technical skills.

The ease of digital imaging in general and camera phones in particular, along with what is known as user-provided content has vaporized the paying market that once supported hundreds of thousands, if not millions of commercial photographers. If the newly employed (and momentarily wealthy) young programmer noted above believes he will not be victim of the same creative destruction that transformed photography, then he really should have studied the liberal arts.

How else did a liberal arts education save me? Had I only studied the craft of photography, I am guessing I would be as out of luck as many of my peers, most of whom are struggling and others who have left the field, retired early, etc. Since I studied the liberal arts, with an emphasis on the history of photography, I have always had a broader context to look at my chosen field. Did I see how digital would transform my field? No! Did I draw on my liberal arts education to come up with another way to make a living? Absolutely!

Today, I teach some photography workshops, speak publicly about photography, write about photography, exhibit my photography and do some (but not many) paid assignments for publications. The audience who pays me these days are people who love photography and value the perspective that I bring to the medium (and to our workshops/classes.) They have been empowered by the same digital imaging revolution that vaporized my former line of work.

The career arcs of many of these same people argue for the value of a liberal arts education. The average American (including my photography students) will have multiple careers, a trend that will only grow in the future. In my work, I see many people in who are pondering making photography their second, third or fourth careers. Certain patterns repeat themselves in when it comes to who is most likely to succeed in the transition to this new career (or simply transitioning to a level of mastery in photography.)

Simply put, those with highly technical, narrowly focused educations tend to struggle the most. Those with educations in the humanities and the liberal arts struggle less. I say this having had some extraordinarily accomplished, even world famous people in my workshops. There are some who are exceptions to this “rule” but the majority follow this trend. Why? Because once you take the technological challenges out of photography, it is fundamentally about story-telling, human connections, emotional accessibility and shared experiences. Those are skills I learned to appreciate decades ago when I was studying the liberal arts.

As for my daughter in college, I know she loves her current career plan, but I also know that she will face challenge along the way and will likely change careers a few times. The only education that could possibly prepare her for the future she will face is the classic liberal arts education she is undertaking, where she is learning how to think, analyze, critique and live her life responsibly. Will she make as much money as the keyboard tapping whiz-kid when she leaves college? Probably not. Will she lead a more satisfying life? It doesn’t take liberal arts degree to ponder that question.

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