When Google started in 1998, the founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Paige, developed an algorithm to find and recruit elite computer scientists to work at their company. They believed that hiring candidates who exhibited the highest level of technical expertise would tend to become the people who would have the most successful careers in the company over the long run.

After experimenting with their management structure for a number of years, Google launched a multiyear research initiative known as “Project Oxygen” in 2013 to uncover the traits of their best managers. They rounded up 10,000 manager observations including performance reviews, surveys, hiring and firing processes, and nominations for top-manager awards and recognition. The results were shocking. The most important skills identified to succeed at Google were ranked, and technical expertise was, surprisingly, dead last.

Highest on the “Project Oxygen” list were strong interpersonal skills — being an effective coach, communicating and listening well, social awareness (possessing insights into other people), empathy and support for colleagues, critical thinking, problem-solving, and connecting complex ideas.

The report revealed that not only is measuring soft skills difficult, but leaders eventually identify the gaps after they’ve already made the hire. So Google now focuses on recruitment and hiring these interpersonal skills.

The Common Question and the Unexpected Career

For those who have decided to pursue a liberal arts degree, the question, “what will you do with that major” highlights the often misleading perceptions that come with the territory — that majoring in something without a clear-cut career path is a risk of your time and investment.

The question, “what will you do with that major” highlights the often misleading perceptions that come with the territory — that majoring in something without a clear-cut career path is a risk of your time and investment.

Rebecca Smith, Executive Director of the Offices of Strengths & Vocation at PLNU, believes that the value of the liberal arts major lies in the flexibility and versatility to move toward the careers and opportunities of tomorrow.

“I just sent my son, Ezra, an article titled Stop Asking Kids What They Want to Be When They Grow Up. Ezra is a college student, and we’ve talked through this question for years now. While I’m encouraging him to explore a variety of different career options, I also remind him that he can expect to work for companies that have yet to start up, and in jobs that have yet to be created. He graduated from a high school that didn’t even exist when he was born. In the same way, why do we expect students to answer a question about what they want to be, when years from now their options may look entirely different?”

“He also recently declared English as his major.”

What’s With the Disconnect?

A 2015 report from the American Economic Review found that “high-achieving, low-income students” do not tend to select liberal arts colleges, as they are unfamiliar with the concept (“I’m not a liberal” was an unsolicited comment on the survey).

They also do not perceive the connection between liberal arts majors and sustainable career options.

Says Smith, “From my work in employer relations for university career services, the disconnect between a liberal arts degree and a career doesn’t fully address that our aspirations often transcend work. A venture capitalist told me during a campus visit, ‘I hire students for the way they think, not for their majors or grades.’”

Related Article: A practical guide to finding a career you love.

Ryan Bresnahan (14), a PLNU graduate, works as a customer experience operations analyst at Aira, a technology company based in San Diego, which provides “smart glasses” to the visually impaired. Aira didn’t exist when Bresnahan walked across the Greek stage in 2014 to get his diploma, but Aira technology was named one of the “World Changing Ideas” by Fast Company in 2019, and one of the “Best Inventions” by Time in 2018.

The disconnect between a liberal arts degree and a career doesn’t fully address that our aspirations often transcend work. A venture capitalist told me during a campus visit, ‘I hire students for the way they think, not for their majors or grades.

Bresnahan majored in music, considered a career in teaching, then ended up as an entry-level Aira agent (part-time schedule, remote location).

He was convinced to apply by a friend who worked at Aria who wouldn’t stop talking about how much he enjoyed “helping people” in his job.

Bresnahan is now focused on data analytics for Aira. A music major involved in predictive analytics? For Bresnahan, the sort of person that he wants to be is found in the passion and purpose of his company — even if it wasn’t necessarily what he majored in.

A New World of Work

LinkedIn’s “Global Talent Trends 2019” revealed that creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management are the top most in-demand soft skills for companies today. As technology automates technical skills faster, the demand for employees to think creatively, be resourceful, navigate change, and work well with others is increasingly more important. Eighty-nine percent of respondents said “bad hires” typically lack soft skills.

Creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management are the top most in-demand soft skills for companies today.

Ninety-one percent of companies cite the importance of “soft skills” in hiring, and 80% of companies struggle with finding candidates with stellar soft skills.

Remember Project Oxygen? The world is showing that it needs our college graduates to be infused with “interpersonal” skills that reflect our character and our calling. The world needs us to be more than our majors.

Related Article: How can we worship God with our work?

PLNU’s the Viewpoint publishes relevant and vital stories that grapple with life's profound questions from a uniquely Christian perspective. In addition to the content offered online, the Viewpoint print magazine is published three times a year in spring, summer, and fall.