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When the numbers don't work

Even well-paid engineers need to know how to put words together



Last June, Business Insider published an article that maintained the "decades-long war against English and the other humanities has succeeded in many ways," and continued on to describe the fallout. The story is titled "America Is Raising a Generation of Kids Who Can't Think or Write Clearly." It's blunt, but not wrong.

Nor is it surprising. The money's on the other side.

In 2012, Forbes released a list of the 15 most valuable college majors. There are no surprises here, either. Excepting one degree in finance and two in management, it's all engineering, math and science.

In our tech-driven world, STEM majors — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are attractive to many freshmen and sophomores. And starting salaries make STEM even more attractive, ranging between $40,000 and $60,000 on average.

So unless you're hopelessly enraptured with the humanities or social sciences, why bother with anything else? Because no matter the major, there are a few skills every college graduate needs.

'Thinking on paper'

There are life skills — things like being organized, diligent, flexible and effective in a group. They're things every adult should be able to do. But one of the most important skills every working adult needs is communication. Thanks to computers, email and text messaging, that often means writing.

"Writing is thinking on paper," posits William Zinsser in his book On Writing Well. "Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all."

Students show they understand material by crafting reports and papers. In business, people use memos and reports to explain and justify decisions. Scientists write papers to explain their discoveries. Programmers assemble manuals for the public and notes for other programmers. Engineers are constantly presenting and justifying projects and designs. And math is its own language that needs translating and explaining, even to other mathematicians.

"My whole career, I've had to do a lot of writing — mainly reports and that sort of thing," says Frank Wells, president of the Pikes Peak Section of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Wells never took any composition classes in college, and says he had to develop the skill later out of need, mostly for writing equipment manuals. "If you want to convince anybody about anything in the technical world," he says, "you have to write about it."

Some people in technical fields think their expertise will get them through. They're not interested in being anything but specialized experts — they just want to make and design and do until retirement.

"Understanding something is very good, but if you can't articulate it to others, you're stalled," says Jessica Betterly, a Denver-based product manager at OneNFP, a software company that works with nonprofits. "Specialists are going to be appreciated for the skills they have, but moving beyond one specific path will be harder."

Forcing the issue

Those who avoid writing-based classes will also be missing out on other skills that benefit any professional.

"I think a STEM education is awesome, but without that rounding that includes the liberal arts — philosophy, logic and critical thinking, humanities, and literature — I think you really lose some of your context for how the world works," says Katherine Brown-Hoekstra. She's the president of the Society for Technical Communication, a professional organization for people who distill complex information into something usable.

Brown-Hoekstra, who came into technical communication from the world of biology, says a rounded education leads to more agile, out-of-the-box thinking. The opposite is true, too — a too-specialized education can make it hard to approach a problem from a different direction.

"You turn into the little robot cart bumping against the wall," she says. "But if that's the only path you know, you won't see other possibilities. The people who can think and critically analyze the information they're receiving are the people who are going to be the most successful."

Colorado College Career Center director Megan Nicklaus agrees. She encourages freshmen to take classes that force them to think in ways they aren't used to, especially when the classes in question require writing about those new trains of thought.

"Many times, the workforce has to reinvent themselves, so having the ability to adapt, to learn things very quickly, and to apply that knowledge is very important," Nicklaus says.

Bev Kratzer, career center director for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says young people have to be flexible; she notes that, unlike in the past, people rarely work at one company for 30 years. And Colorado Technical University's director of career services, Belinda Nichols Zonno, says that's a strength you can start to develop as a student: "At the undergraduate level, it is important to be well-rounded and have multiple skill sets; and not necessarily a developed expertise."

Betterly thinks of her background, as a Colorado College anthropology alum who works with software, as a whole rather than a collection of disparate parts. "To me, it feels like a complete way of approaching anything is to have both sides of it — to be able to analyze it by coming at it from a scientific side, but then to be able to articulate it into something coherent, feels complete."


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