Liberal arts degrees also attractive to IT companies


January 19th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Technology training and know-how only get you so far in this economy. It turns out many employers today are looking for workers with a broader set of skills. Packaged food giant ConAgra’s IT internship program, for example, values a degree in journalism or biology as much as one in computer science. The trend is putting a crimp in the conventional theory on higher education that specialization pays.

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You might think employees in ConAgra’s Information Technology department are all big-time techies or that they boast computer science degrees from prestigious universities. While some certainly do, ConAgra is one of many companies making hiring decisions that are a bit outside the box.

Eric Fasse and Holly Barber are communications and journalism majors who ended up working in the IT department at ConAgra. (Photo by Clay Masters, NET News)

A few years ago, the company revamped its IT internship program looking for more recent graduates with liberal arts degrees. IT departments are usually heavy on computer scientists and not on those who didn’t climb the traditional techie ladder.

ConAgra is the giant company that makes brands like Healthy Choice and Slim Jim. Behind all of its business operations, ConAgra’s IT department is vital to the company’s success, according to Gerrit Schutte, chief information officer at the Omaha-based food company.

“Think of what it takes to produce a product, what it takes to run a factory, to what it takes to run a payroll,” Schutte said. “All of these processes are reduced to some kind of computer logic.”

Remember that old joke about how a liberal arts major says “You want fries with that?” Well, that joke might be turning on those who still use it.

Consider that Healthy Choice frozen meal you toss into the microwave. There’s a lot that goes on behind it – not just the physical production of that convenient lunch, but the way it gets to the aisle of your local grocery store in the first place.

ConAgra recently revamped its IT internship program to include more liberal arts majors. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

The IT department at ConAgra is huge, about 700 employees. There are no assigned workspaces – one-day-a-week employees work remotely from home. When the company re-vamped its IT internship in 2008, it helped people like Eric Fasse who majored in communications studies.

“That initial interview I had was just going over the skills, so they’re to get a bead on what is your IT background,” Fasse said. “They’re asking me Do you know how to do JavaScript’ I had to say no to everything and I thought ‘I’m sunk, there’s no way. I’m not going to get a call back.'”

Fasse didn’t just get a call back; he eventually got an IT job at ConAgra. So did Holly Barber, even though on paper, her resume may have seemed a bit thin.

“All throughout high school I was definitely a geek and a gamer so I was naturally leaning towards computer science, but I didn’t like math, so that was the stumbling block for me,” Barber said. “So I started as a computer science major but switched to journalism.”

ConAgra partners with nearby colleges to grow their own local talent, like Fasse and Barber, right in Omaha, while still hiring many students who take the normal computer science route.

“We certainly never turn down our computer science people, but we look for them to have more than a single dimension in terms of what they bring to the table,” Shutte said. “Just technical talent is not enough.”

Agriculture companies are not the only businesses interested in broadening their hiring pool. Debra Humphreys with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said companies like Siemens and Hewlett Packard are also open to nontraditional hiring.

“The big message for today’s college students is to remember that they’re preparing now for a lifetime of work, not just for that first job they’re going to get when they graduate,” Humphreys said. “What we’re hearing from employers over and over again is students really need a combination of broad skills and abilities from a good college education.”

Humphreys said colleges need to give students more of a chance to get out of the classroom and into the real world.

Colleges like the Raikes School of Computer Science and Management, an honors college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, are finding creative ways to do just that. David Keck, the director of the college, says that they’ve set up an internal advisory board made up of deans and professors as well as an external board made up of successful business execs.

“We meet twice a year and get lots of feedback on what skills are most in demand in industry and then we translate that back into our coursework,” Keck said.

Keck said everyone at the college gets a job when they graduate because companies want business and computer savvy employees. Computer science students there take a class called Design Studio, where a private business hires them to come up with an idea and make it happen.

While no one is saying computer science majors won’t still be in high demand in the near future, it does appear that having some liberal arts training while embracing your inner computer geek might just be the key to getting your foot in the door.

This story was also broadcast on National Public Radio.

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