World of possibility

(July 22, 1999, Gazette)

By Laura Edwards
Special to the Gazette

There is a world of possibility for those of us with undergraduate degrees in English. At least that's what they tell us. They, of course, are our predecessors who have managed to make great lives for themselves through a combination of hard work, luck and personal charm. They are also our professors and advisors who tell us that our ability to communicate is the most sought after employability skill out there today.

Well, that's easy for them to say because, from where I stand, the world looks pretty daunting.

First, there is the widespread belief that BA graduates are not employable. Secondly, it's frustrating to see people with technical backgrounds being recruited for high paying jobs before they even graduate.

Naturally I was skeptical when I went out to speak with some of my fellow English graduates in the real world. Dr. Annette Staveley, undergraduate coordinator for the English Department, said that because "we have trained our minds to gather, organize, process and present information we can do anything we want."

The question is: does this translate into the job market? Are we discovering that employers really see us as strong communicators with analytical minds?

I spoke with several people who received their degrees within the past five years. What I expected to hear was that they went back to school because they could not find jobs. Their English education had not made them employable and that they had to work toward something that could actually get them a job.

Was I wrong!

While many of them are in school, they are using their liberal arts backgrounds and building upon them. Everyone was very enthusiastic when they spoke of the skills received from their English degrees.

Rhona Buchan who is studying law at the University of Ottawa, said employers "take people with degrees seriously"and that her English background has developed her writing and communication skills.

Tammy Davis-Young, a professional fund-raiser at UPEI, agreed. She said employers value both the commitment and stamina involved in working through four years of postsecondary education.

Kris Carnell, who just finished an IT program, said he views his English degree as a stepping stone and is pleased and "surprised that employers place as high a value as they do. They really see the value of being able to communicate. What I mean is being able to read and write well, research and analyze. All of those things came from my degree in English."

Ken Byrne who has completed a multimedia course at College of the North Atlantic, said he "learned how to find information" through completing his English degree and these skills have kept him a step ahead. He believes that the combination of the "soft skills" like communication, analysis and writing combined with the "hard skills" of his computer training make him confident enough to start his own company.

Michael Daly, who has been accepted to study film making in New York City, had an explanation for why so many graduates move away.

"St. John's has a pretty big arts community but there's not enough room to hold everybody."

In every discipline graduates must be willing to move away; it's the nature of a professional education. However, Ken Byrne pointed out that there are many more jobs now for BA graduates then even a few years ago when "you couldn't find a job to save your life."

But are employers taking English graduates seriously? According to Ms. Davis-Young, "when positions involve interaction with others, selling, management and communication, English graduates have an edge."

I trace my early cynicism to my own job at Alumni Affairs and Development here at Memorial. I started working here on a full-time basis just weeks following graduation with my own degree in English. However, I had worked here as a student so I thought that I got this job because I was familiar with the office. It was pointed out to me, just the other day, that the reasons I got this job and the job I had as a student are because of my communication, organizational and research skills. Skills that are a direct result of my English degree.

I can honestly say that I have learned a few things in the past few weeks. It's still true that many students are choosing to pursue English because they feel a passion for literature. But, just as importantly, they see the applicable and employable nature of a BA. I thought that graduates are bitter and for the most part unemployed. But it's not like that at all: students and employers alike are recognizing the diverse options available to those who can communicate.

What the academic world has known for a long time is finally catching on with the rest of the world. The penchant for reading, writing, and analysing will prove to be both valuable and useful, exactly like Dr. Staveley promises it will. We really can do anything we want.

Laura Edwards graduated with a BA in English in 1998.