Editor’s note: The following commentary was sent to the Rivard Report in response to a recent article written by Trinity University graduate Jonathan Hernandez, who described the challenges he ultimately surmounted in landing a good job in San Antonio despite his lack of experience.

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Dear Mr. Hernandez:

As a recently retired CEO of a $2 billion financial services firm, perhaps my experience might provide a few insights for your understanding the value of your liberal arts degree.

An acquaintance of mine was the CEO of one of the largest regional banks in Houston. His degrees? B.A. and M.A. in Music. Another is the CEO of a major hotel chain with a B.A. in anthropology. My degree? An M.A. in Theology.

A decade-long tenure as the CEO of a firm with more than 700 employees, combined with more than 30 years as a senior executive in multi-billion dollar firms, placed me in a position to help launch, advance – and sometimes end – careers of college graduates.

You’ve already received exceptional advice from the earlier response to your commentary by Michelle Friesenhahn. Ms. Friesenhahn’s insights regarding the value of a liberal art degree are brilliant – and 100% accurate.

Ms. Friesenhahn wrote:

“Your liberal arts degree is your best friend. As an employer, a liberal arts degree tells me you can communicate, you’ll be more articulate than most; you probably have many interests and are curious about a full spectrum of ideas, interests, and issues – which is paramount in the communications field. Those of us with liberal arts degrees, even boomers, use more of our right brains and tend to problem-solve differently. This asset becomes even more apparent later on in your career.”

Most business schools at universities today are an assembly line disgorging graduates who can compute, but very few who can: (1) discern, (2) think, and (3) explain. Writing skills are dismal among the best of them. You have an advantage, Mr. Hernandez. You have the foundation necessary to differentiate yourself. It was obvious to me in business meetings who did or did not have a strong liberal arts grounding.

Successful CEO’s have little need for more graduates who tell senior management what the “numbers say.” What is desperately lacking are those who can tell management “what the numbers mean.” Data is cheap; gleaning information from data is rare; discerning meaning from information is priceless. This requires critical thinking, not computing.

Graduates who can “connect the dots” are sorely lacking, yet are needed more than ever in a world awash in overwhelming data. Senior executives desperately need on their team those who can read and listen critically, think and analyze analogically, and then communicate metaphorically to diverse internal and external stakeholders.

Business-focused, self-help books abound today, yet most are completely lacking in any understanding that the humanities and classical studies offer as a guide for leadership today. Would you like to read a great story about the management challenges of a boss who had a high-producing, get-things-done, superstar employee, but who was narcissistic, difficult and disruptive? Try the story of Agamemnon and Achilles in “The Iliad.”

You are correct in one respect. Those who graduate with “business” degrees have a slight advantage out of the gate, but this advantage fades fairly quickly. The proof of this, Mr. Hernandez, is that, as reported by Forbes, only 11% of all Fortune 500 company CEOs have a business degree. Personally, there is no doubt in my mind that my B.B.A. got me a job more than 40 year ago, but it was my liberal arts M.A. that got me to the CEO’s chair.

Need more indicators? Read the Brookings Institution report, “Beyond College Rankings.” There, among the rankings of four-year colleges and universities, you’ll discover that a degree from St. Mary’s University on the city’s Westside, with its strong liberal arts core required of even business majors, ranks in value at mid-career in the top 20 of all universities in the nation along with MIT, Rice and other powerhouses.

As to first employment right out of college, here is the hard reality. Think of money flowing through a company like a river. Periodically, management dips a bucket into that flow to pull out some out some of the cash to distribute as pay to employees. In order for that payment to be made to you, you have to “do” something outside of yourself. Work is what you do externally to create value. You must write something, pick up something, make something, move something, or create something that justifies you getting some of that cash.

You, Mr. Hernandez, must exchange your “work” with others along a lengthy, but necessary, line until the exchange reaches those who produce water, food, shelter, clothing, and energy. In the Christian tradition one of the giants was St. Paul, the greatest evangelist of all time. He earned his living as a tent maker. How are you, Mr. Hernandez, going to pay the farmer that produces what you eat?

Take some time to invest in reading the Encyclical by Pope John Paul II, “Laborem Exercens” (On Human Work). You may discover that the late Pope, who was more philosopher than theologian, had a lot to say about the value of work in personal fulfillment, expansion of the soul and the duty to participate in the continuing Creation of our world.

Starting out, you might have to take on work that you deem not appropriate for your degree. If you can get past that, you can get started. Once you get hired, focus on what you’re doing. Then volunteer for everything that the company does in the community. Get on every employee committee and offer to help with the work, write the minutes, publish the reports, and develop the plans. Become the “go to” person. You’ll get to show your “stuff” by applying your liberal arts degree to that which is not routine.

First and foremost, keep a laser focus on doing what you get paid to do. The Jesuits have a motto, in Latin: “Age quod agis.” “Do what you are doing.”

Avoid falling into the trap of the “waiting to be discovered” syndrome. If you do, you’ll be tagged as a would-be Hollywood star waiting tables until the film industry finally realizes how great he is, repents, pays him homage and puts him in the latest blockbuster.

Finally, Mr. Hernandez, you used the first person singular “I” at least 51 times in your short commentary. If you talk the way you write, you may be sure that potential employers will notice this about you immediately – as will your peers when you’re hired. Take note that in this response to you, including sharing personal experiences, the first-person singular pronoun was not used even once.

You have a liberal arts degree. Start using it.

*Top image: Downtown San Antonio as seen from UTSA’s downtown campus. Photo courtesy of UTSA. 

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Edward Speed

Edward Speed holds a Master of Arts in Systematic Theology from St. Mary's University. He reports on religion and spirituality for the Rivard Report.