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Skill Exploration: English Majors

Using skills data to recontextualize the English major in today’s labor market

September 8, 2021 by Anne Peasley

It’s easy (or easier) to dig into data around a program of study or a skill that corresponds directly to a job role. For instance, nursing programs produce nurses. And programs that focus on data engineering skills produce, well, data engineers.

But not every program is like that. Majors such as philosophy, math, history, and English are traditional mainstays of a college education, but they don’t correspond directly with specific jobs. (And that’s important — there’s a need for a pool of creative people who organically find and fill critical areas of the economy.)

Our research in Degrees at Work demonstrates the importance of moving beyond occupations and even job titles to look at skills and skill clusters. This is especially applicable to majors with a less obvious career connection, as skills follow graduates between jobs, even as they transition between occupations and industries. 

With that in mind, what if we could make the skills learned in these types of programs more immediately visible and relevant? Let’s take a look at an example program — in this case, English — and dive into the data.

Careers for English majors

The ubiquitous question for English majors is “What are you going to do with that… teach?”

And yes, teaching is indeed a popular destination for graduates of English Literature & Language/Letters programs (CIP code 23), comprising 4 out of the top 10 jobs.

  1. Postsecondary Teachers
  2. Elementary School Teachers, Except Special Education
  3. Secondary School Teachers, Except Special and Career/Technical Education
  4. Middle School Teachers, Except Special and Career/Technical Education
  5. Librarians and Media Collections Specialists
  6. Writers and Authors
  7. Editors
  8. Library Technicians
  9. Technical Writers
  10. News Analysts, Reporters, and Journalists

Naturally, library-related careers are also common. The list is rounded out by careers in writing, editing, and journalism.

Since we know that English majors are taking these types of jobs, it may be beneficial for English departments to ensure their students get the skills they need to succeed across these common careers. 

Skills employers seek for writing and editing

What are those skills? Let’s take a look at the cluster of writing and editing occupations. 

(Note: We will not examine journalism in this article. While it’s a highly requested skill in writing and editing occupations, the overall journalistic skill set shares more in common with broadcasting and digital media production.)

This map shows the top skills that employers request in job postings for several writing-related occupations: Writers and Editors (SOC code 27-3040), Technical Writer (27-3042), Editors (27-3041), and Writers and Authors (27-3043). Each cell represents the percentage of job postings that request these skills.

Top skills for writing careers | Emsi Burning Glass

Some popular skills have a clear connection to a specific occupation (e.g. technical writing for Technical Writers), but their relevance is not limited to only that occupation. For example, copywriting is a hotly requested skill in the writers and authors occupation, but it’s also requested across all these occupations. Similar broadly-requested skills include journalism, proofreading, and Search Engine Optimization.

Certainly, many English departments have technical writing or creative writing tracks. But considering that many of these skills span occupations that graduates commonly inhabit, perhaps it’s time to extend those skills to the entire program portfolio. This isn’t just about producing the best English major that you can (which is important, but not the whole story). It’s also about situating your English majors within a context that will allow them to make the best use of their training and skills.

For instance, the skill “Request for proposal” indicates that Grants and Contracts are involved. Learning about the grant procurement process could help future academics secure funding, and also the English majors that go on to be grantwriters, fundraisers, or directors at an awarding agency.

Skills that English majors find useful

But would English majors actually use these skills? Before we go too far, let’s cross-check that with what English graduates are listing in their online profiles. This will give us insight into the skills where they find value. 

To do so, let’s look at the top 10 hard skills pulled from our database of professional profiles from working professionals who indicate they majored in English.

  1. Event Planning
  2. Creative Writing
  3. Strategic Planning
  4. Public Relations
  5. Copy Editing
  6. Proofreading
  7. Social Media Marketing
  8. Fundraising
  9. Copywriting
  10. Newsletters

There’s an overlap with the skills requested by employers in the writing and editing career cluster we examined — which indicates an area of opportunity. Not only do employers say they want these skills, employees are actually listing those skills in their online profiles. This confirms that they are valuable, real-world skills since both employers and employees list them.

Specifically, the skills in question are creative writing, copy editing, proofreading, copywriting, and newsletters. To set its graduates up for success in writing and editing careers, these could be helpful skills to emphasize in the curriculum.

Skills lead to new career possibilities

But what about the other skills listed that don’t overlap with writing and editing careers — like event planning, strategic planning, public relations, or fundraising?

According to profiles data, English graduates are also going on to executive director positions (especially in non-profits), program management, and PR fields — which opens up a whole new realm of skill possibilities in terms of event planning, fundraising (consider the point raised earlier about grants and contracts), or even logistical skills such as project management. 

In many of these roles, graduates can utilize the deep skill sets they gained as an English major, recontextualized within the modern labor market. Rather than applying traditional skills such as close reading or textual analysis to literary texts or historic authors, these skills can be utilized in modern contexts. For instance, the skill of Search Engine Optimization calls upon an English major’s proficiency in thematic analysis, applied to publishing for the web.

Skills can help reframe the conversation about the end results of an English major. Some questions to ask: Is the goal simply producing a “practitioner of English”? How might incorporating or reemphasizing new skills in the curriculum help to contextualize or enable graduates to bring the English major mindset (and skill set) to the world? What skills, even if they lie outside the purview of the major, might be a valuable addition to your curriculum?


 

To continue thinking differently about skills, check out
The Case For Skills-Based General Education.

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