Kevin O’Leary is wrong about education

Why an arts degree isn’t worthless – and why the energy sector needs people with them now more than ever

April 01, 2015

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Illustration Graham Roumieu

A liberal arts degree is a waste of time and money. Just ask Kevin O’Leary, the former Dragon, current Shark and perpetually outspoken financial guru. He’s a regular guest on BNN, and during a February appearance on the network he shared his thoughts on the subject. “You come out with a history degree and you’re going to [be a] zero,” he told host Catherine Murray. “I’m not saying it’s not something you shouldn’t do as a hobby, but you can’t get employed. It’s impossible. You can sit on the street with a blanket over you reading poetry – that’s OK. But you won’t get a job. That’s not worth $100,000. An engineering degree, a technical degree, anything in the trades, is better.” O’Leary’s sentiments may have come with the usual helping of hyperbole that he serves up, but there’s also something in them that should be familiar to anyone who has one of those useless liberal arts degrees. They resonate particularly loudly in the energy sector, where technical training and science- and engineering-based degrees are always in demand and usually lead to full employment and six-figure salaries.

“That critical element of leadership around listening, learning and communicating … comes from some of the soft skills that the arts faculty is uniquely positioned to teach.”

– Brad Ferguson,  Edmonton Economic Development Corporation

But is a liberal arts degree really as worthless as O’Leary seems to think? Lisa Young, the dean and vice-provost of graduate studies at the University of Calgary, isn’t buying it. “In the energy sector, as in most sectors of the economy, what employers are looking for are people with skills in communication and collaboration and people who are adaptable. And they’re exactly the skills that somebody should acquire when they’re getting an arts degree.” Those arts degrees are particularly useful in the current environment, given the social, reputational and political challenges the energy sector still has to face down. “It’s clear that there’s going to be an ongoing conversation about carbon pricing and about environmental impacts, and you need people with real interdisciplinary knowledge – not just technical knowledge but also knowledge of social context – in order to get out in front of those issues.”

Liberal arts degrees will also help energy companies manage the challenges that lie in their futures but which they can’t see yet. That’s because the calling cards of liberal arts graduates – lateral thinking, the ability to see the big picture and an understanding of what she calls “social context” – are skills that those who come from more technically minded educational backgrounds don’t always have. “That critical perspective can be really valuable to have around the table – any CEO knows that having a table full of people who agree with you on everything is a disaster waiting to happen,” Young says. “What you want to do is surround yourself with people who share your fundamental objective but have diverse perspectives so they can alert you to emerging issues and make you question your thinking in a way that’s productive to the industry.” Brad Ferguson, the president and CEO of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, shares that perspective. “When you have a diverse view set in a room you tend to come out with better solutions,” he says. “If 10 people in the room are trained exactly the same way, nine are redundant. So when we’re going to talk about complex issues – man versus man, man versus nature, man versus the environment – those are humanity-based discussions. You need differences of opinion, and different lenses to solve that problem.”

The challenge, Ferguson says, is for arts graduates and the companies that might employ them to better understand the relationship between what they’ve studied in school and how they can apply it. “People don’t understand how to make the connection to something that’s relevant today,” he says. “But when you take anthropology and apply it to economics, then you realize that China-Russia relations are really important to the economy and maybe the price of oil. That’s where a lot of folks don’t make the connection, and why a lot of graduates don’t hit their stride until they have more work experience to apply it to.” As an example, he says, consider someone who comes out of school having studied Chilean history, which naturally includes an understanding of geography and anthropology and even a bit of economics. With just a bit of training and guidance, that student could make a lot of money playing the market on the price of copper using that supposedly worthless arts education she has. The same is almost certainly true for the energy sector, he says. “I’d suggest in the energy sector the value of the arts degree has been discounted from the potential value it has.”

That value includes providing graduates with a basic social and intellectual toolkit that can, in time and with practice, be used to create good leaders – and maybe even a few great ones. “A big part of leadership is being open and listening to a variety of views, formulating your opinion and then knowing how to communicate it to a wide range of people,” Ferguson says. “That critical element of leadership around listening, learning and communicating doesn’t come from more physics courses or knowing 30 different ways to build a bridge. It comes from some of the soft skills that the arts faculty is uniquely positioned to teach.”

Still, that’s easy for people like Brad Ferguson and Lisa Young to say. It’s much harder for today’s students to actually hear it, given the cacophony of well-meaning advice, insight and the occasional bit of fear-mongering they have to sort through when figuring out what they want to study. But Chelsie Klassen is one person who managed to cut through the noise. When she arrived at the University of Manitoba, she thought she wanted to study nursing given that, as everyone was more than happy to tell her, it offered its graduates excellent career prospects. She abandoned that path after a year, though, deciding that she wanted to study economics instead. Today she’s the media relations manager for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and she got that job after spending seven years working for Imperial Oil in a variety of positions in both the field and head office. “Just like many people that are told that arts degrees won’t get them anywhere, I was told the same thing,” she says. “But I still made the leap from something that had job security in nursing into the arts world, and here I am in the energy industry. And I love it – I love it every day.”

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3 Responses to “Kevin O’Leary is wrong about education”

  1. Lael Prince says:

    As an educator in a Faculty of Arts programme I am always amused by people like 0’Leary who dismiss arts degrees as useless. In the private sector of Calgary, oil and gas mecca, the number of employees with these backgrounds is astounding. And, I always like to point to a dear friend who graduated with a B.A. in history. We all told her she was crazy, what would she do with that degree? Well, she ended up working for one of the largest oil companies in Calgary, eventually rising to a VP level earning well over 100K. Upon ‘retirement’ she opened her own consulting business doing team leadership and had travelled the world, earning fantastic money, sharing her skills and experience with a range of companies. In the end, employers are looking for productive hard working people. People who can come from a range of academic and technical backgrounds.

  2. David says:

    As recenty retired scientist, now budding entrepreneur, I think that I should point out that of 10 scientists in a room, none will have the same educational background and they will frequently argue over the the approach used and other aspects of the problem. Some may be selfish perfectionists who limit forward progress, but others will introduce compromise and decisiveness. Arts graduates may be better at communication on many levels, putting a positive spin on any disaster, but frequently lack the analytical skills to drag an engineering-based business or economy into new, diverse directions. Being a ‘mouth-piece’ and a follower of ‘pop’ science and culture may qualify a person to be a highly paid stuffed shirt, but as soon as technical innovation is concerned, the bottom soon drops out of the conversation and the only value that a communications specialist has is that at sometime for a few microsecs, they may have met a person with the relevant skills. This may make them useful as a rolodex, but little else. Science graduates are thought to be memorizers of data and users of equations who wear white lab coats and carry clipboards, but there is a lot of arts in the scientific discipline. You must be creative and capable of looking at a problem from many vantage points. In modern society, some of these talents have been lost from the school education programs. Schools often do not equip students to think on their feet using what they know to solve a problem. They are generating users of a product rather than developers of a product. Engineers and scientists create the polymer to make a credit card and the code to read the magnetic strip on the back of the card. Arts graduates focus on the design on the card and what it’s messages communicate to the user. The rest of the great unwashed just remember the 4 digits to get cash out of the machine on the wall.

    Kevin O’Leary? Well, he has some interesting points of view, but the short term book-keepers perspective on investment return is not consistent will all aspects of lean, efficient business or good for business growth. In the long term, because saving money and reinvestment are not encouraged from one accounting year to the next, the business becomes lax, profits go down and the wise investor jumps ship to invest in the next lucrative deal. This is commerce, not business IMHO. Such attitudes prevail where there is a conflict between an individuals return on investment and growth and development of the business. This issue is at the very heart of Alberta’s boom or bust oil revenue-based economy.

  3. Vince says:

    Its true what O leary says. Worked almost 30 years in technical aspect of oil industry. The odd liberal arts person was useless. A few retrained something technical. There was a study done of liberal arts grads that are waiters & bar tenders. The percents were staggering.

    Make up all the nonsense hype you want but most liberal arts grads are not too usefull. I went thru a manpower course to find hidden interests & I thought to look into a field I always loved & spend large amounts of my free time on – History. I called several curators at museums to get an idea of pay scale. I could not believe how little they make for a masters or higher. I would have to go back to what a junior engineer makes. Will just keep ut as a love.