Education: Don't be limited by tunnel vision: Arts and humanities graduates can find jobs - if they overcome their prejudices about the world of commerce. Sarah Strickland reports

Click to follow
NIGEL LLEWELLYN says with a smile that he joined Touche Ross, the accountancy firm, in 1977 because he thought 'the name sounded French'. A modern-languages graduate, he wanted to use his linguistic skills and knew little about accountancy. But he is still with the firm. 'I surprised myself by enjoying it,' he says.

As the national recruitment partner, he warns would-be graduate recruits that they need to be 'much better researched' than he was. But the company is still taking on language graduates. Indeed, only about 20 per cent of its graduate intake has a relevant qualification in accountancy these days; a quarter has an arts degree.

Britain is unique in Europe for producing large numbers of arts graduates and they have been increasing. The Government is attempting to limit that rise by offering lower levels of funding for arts places, but demand is sure to remain high. Arts (or humanities) courses - such as English, history, philosophy and modern languages - are growing in popularity, largely because more women and mature students are entering higher education: both tend to opt for arts subjects.

Compared with students in other disciplines, fewer arts students drop out of university, but fewer go straight into permanent employment after graduating. That suggests that arts students choose their degree subject out of interest and often have difficulty finding work afterwards. Why is this, and is it avoidable?

Helen Perkins, chair of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, wrote about the employability of arts students in Arts Graduates, their Skills and their Employment (edited by Heather Eggins and published by the Falmer Press, pounds 13.95). There was, she said, confusion over employment for arts and humanities students, particularly in the broadest fields of business. Since about half of all opportunities were open to graduates of 'any discipline' there was 'no reason at all why arts graduates should feel they are non-vocational and thus limited in their career choice.'

She added: 'Many arts and humanities graduates have a fairly limited view of the scope of employment opportunities open to them and are often reluctant to be directed into different areas.' There was a need to encourage less prejudice about careers in business and industry. Many arts graduates felt certain careers were 'beneath their dignity' or 'wholly inappropriate to their skills and aspirations.' Without substantial careers counselling, they would end up unemployed through chanelling their job search into a very limited number of options.

There was, she concluded, 'a world of opportunity' for arts graduates. Britain - unlike other European countries - had a long-established tradition of recruiting graduates of any discipline.

Mr Llewellyn believes that 'if you can pick the right arts graduates, then they tend to do very well - sometimes better than those with a more vocational degree because they often have better communicative skills and command of the language.' Current graduate recruits had degrees in everything from theology, philosophy and classics to archaeology and anthropology.

One, Adela Moody, did what she calls 'a very traditional language degree' at Durham University, graduating two years ago. She felt pushed towards teaching as the only way to use her languages, but decided against it after teaching abroad for a year. In her fourth year at university, she discovered that accountancy firms would take on graduates of any discipline and decided to apply. Her maths was rusty, but she was able to prove she had the basic numeracy skills required.

Now she is gaining a business training to complement her languages. 'As an arts graduate you can easily become tunnel-visioned and think you have to go into something 'creative', such as teaching, publishing or the media,' she says. 'But accountancy is very much a 'people' job, you really need communicative skills and it gives you a great deal of flexibility and responsibility. I even hope to be seconded abroad. For the last couple of years, graduates with non-relevant degrees have had better results than the others Touche Ross has hired.'

Kevin Cunningham would agree. He graduated from Strathclyde University four years ago with a first in English and is now working in the insurance department at Sainsbury. 'Why would anyone go to university to do accounting?' he asks. 'I can do that here. I made a conscious decision to do English because I enjoyed it and thought it was the best way to express myself. I didn't think I had better do something vocational.

'I believe arts graduates have most of the skills that others have - such as the ability to investigate and analyse a problem, then present a solution - and they tend to be more objective. The attitude that business and industry are 'boring' and 'uncreative' does circulate among them, but a lot fail to realise that things such as theatre management and publishing are businesses as well. They are in for a big shock.'

Tom Frank, the chair of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, says many arts graduates have very little idea of what to do beyond wanting to 'use my languages', 'meet people', 'travel' or 'do something creative'. Many also panic at the sight of numbers, which is usually simply a matter of confidence.

'The first thing to realise about publishing or advertising is that they are highly commercial and you might have to proofread or work in a shop before you get anywhere,' he says.

Fiona Hindle, who sees mainly arts graduates and undergraduates at London University's careers service, says 'an element of reality' is now creeping in and that arts graduates are becoming 'more flexible' in their career thoughts. 'But a lot still get into their final year and don't have a clue where to start.' Arts graduates with no practical skills are having a particularly tough time, so she advises them to get some work experience and keyboard skills as a stepping stone to a job.

Sue Drew works on the personal skills and qualities project at Sheffield Hallam University, researching students' perceptions of their own development. She believes arts graduates gain a lot of skills they are not really aware of and 'have difficulty making the connection between those skills and using them in a work setting'. Students who do sandwich courses involving work placements are much more able to do that. One solution is to offer arts students the chance to participate in work-related projects during their degree courses.

Jane Saunders, recruitment manager for IBM, says about 36 per cent of the graduates taken on each year are of 'any discipline', and arts graduates are just as able as anyone else to develop the right skills. 'It is a level playing field and they, too, can get out there and sell themselves,' she says.

If they need any more encouragement, they should remember that Sir Anthony Cleaver, chairman of IBM UK Holdings, has a degree in classics.

(Photograph omitted)