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How Our AI Matches Great Candidates to Your Job

Curious about how our modern vendor management platform really works? To shed some light on the built-in artificial intelligence (AI) that boosts hiring outcomes, we’re launching a series that[...]

March 31, 2020

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Why a Liberal Arts Education is More Important to Tech than You Think

Last summer, Michael Litt, co-founder of Vidyard, revealed that he concentrates more of his company’s hiring strategies on people with a liberal arts education. This may sound counterintuitive in an era where organizations scramble to snag software engineers, big data scientists, AI programmers, and anyone with STEM skills. Yet, with the rush of exciting developments, it’s easy to forget power of our own minds. No breakthroughs occur without the imaginative thinkers who first envision the possibilities. And a small college in California, which produces some of the nation’s brightest STEM students, offers a powerful reminder that creativity is inseparable from science.

An Institution Where Liberal Arts and Science Intersect

Harvey Mudd College (HMC), a small university nestled in the bucolic Claremont valley near the San Gabriel Mountain foothills, is by charter a liberal arts school. However, Yahoo Finance noted that the institution has become a STEM powerhouse. Its graduates earn more on average than “those from Harvard and Stanford about 10 years into their careers.”

As Abby Jackson explained in the article, HMC combines STEM learning with liberal arts curriculum to give “students a broad scientific foundation and the skills to think and to solve problems across disciplines. The approach closely mirrors advice from some experts on how schools can develop students able to compete with automation, which has become an increasingly disruptive force in the labor market.”

Speaking to Business Insider, Jim Boerkoel, a computer science professor at HMC, said that every student must “take at least one computer-science course, which is fairly unique for many schools, particularly liberal-arts schools.” However, HMC’s introductory course extends far beyond the traditional approach. The syllabus encompasses programming, logic, software development, artificial intelligence and other highly relevant topics. When combined with the college’s already lauded humanities programs, students become “critical thinkers who improvise the way robots cannot.”

In terms of diversity, Jackson pointed out, the integration of arts and sciences led HMC to graduate “its first majority-female computer-science class” last year – huge progress in a space that still suffers from inequality.

HMC’s approach is so profound that faculty from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), one of the world’s foremost universities for delivering work-ready graduates, invited HMC professors to help train its own computer science staff.

Creativity: The Spirit that Runs the Machine

It’s fun to depict scientists as bespectacled, disheveled people in lab coats who pore over figures and formulas all day. Yet without imagination, vision and an understanding of society, it’s hard to believe that any real scientific accomplishments could flourish. Science requires creativity for continued innovation. No invention was envisioned without curiosity and ambition: the dreamer gazing at the stars in wonder, the biologist fighting to cure a terrible disease, the electrical engineer helping to overcome obstacles in the way of communications, and other pioneers motivated by a need to improve our quality of life.

Thomas Redman made a compelling case in a piece for Harvard Business Review. The best data scientists, Redman proclaimed, “get out and talk to people.” There persist nuances, introspective subtleties and quality issues in the data that can’t be determined by machines or analytical interpretations alone.

“They recognize that the world is filled with ‘soft data,’ relevant sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures that are yet to be digitized — and hence are unavailable to those working at their computers,” Redman observed of astute data scientists. “Think of things like the electricity in the air at a political rally and the fear in the eyes of an executive faced with an unexpected threat. They know they must understand the larger context, the real problems and opportunities, how decision makers decide, and how their predictions will be used.”

This sentiment is also echoed by astrophysicists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Adam Frank. Both scientists not only acknowledge the necessity of the humanities, they embrace liberal arts as a crucial backbone to scientific achievement. Speaking with NPR in February 2016, Frank advocated for the value of the arts in academia: “In spite of being a scientist, I strongly believe an education that fails to place a heavy emphasis on the humanities is a missed opportunity. Without a base in humanities, both the students -- and the democratic society these students must enter as informed citizens -- are denied a full view of the heritage and critical habits of mind that make civilization worth the effort.”

Frank provided a solid reason for his conclusion: “The old barriers between the humanities and technology are falling. Historians now use big-data techniques to ask their human-centered questions. Engineers use the same methods -- but with an emphasis on human interfaces -- to answer their own technology-oriented questions.”

In the future, computers will certainly assume a greater share of the duties currently tasked to human talent, including programming and data analysis. We can’t presume that automation won’t replace or commoditize certain skill sets. Realistically, however, there’s a limit to what machines will be able to do. As Rally Health’s Tom Perrault observed in Harvard Business Review, “What can’t be replaced in any organization imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills, such as creativity, empathy, listening, and vision. These skills, not digital or technological ones, will hold the keys to a company’s future success. And yet companies aren’t hiring for them. This is a problem for today’s digital companies, and it’s only going to get worse.”

Creative Contingent Workforce Leaders Deliver Creative Contingent Talent

The fierce competition to secure skilled talent makes perfect sense today. More and more, we’re witnessing the evolution of contingent workforce programs. They’re no longer supplemental staff augmentation efforts. They’re no longer stop-gap measures in times of turnover or seasonal spikes in demand. Today, contingent professionals are being courted for their expertise to solve mission-critical issues or complete imperative projects. As every client strives to innovate and regain an edge over the competition, skilled contingent workers make a tremendous difference.

However, creative contingent talent should not be omitted in the search. These workers can be the best hires for companies that are truly forward-moving, tolerant of change, serious about stirring the pot to innovate, and creating new environments that require a degree of risk and uncertainty. The creativity, drive and exploratory nature of these individuals helps businesses discover and capitalize on new opportunities, break free from outdated and ineffective models, pioneer unique solutions, and avoid stagnation. They have the potential to be prized assets for a growing or rebranding company.

  • Sourcing creative contingent talent is itself a creative process. Elite contingent workforce leaders excel at matching the right talent to the right client culture, often deploying unconventional recruiting and screening processes. This is the strength of savvy staffing professionals -- one they consistently perform and refine.
  • The best way for contingent workforce leaders and clients to achieve goals together is by concentrating on fit. When tasked with managing a program targeting change and innovation, contingent workforce leaders should spend a greater amount of time on discovery and voice of the customer meetings. These investigative undertakings provide a clearer picture of the client’s existing culture, its ability to loosen structures and policies, and its comfort level with creative talent who may operate outside traditional team structures or approval processes.
  • Exemplary contingent workforce program managers devote extra time to communicate with the realistic nature of the client’s culture and flexibility to top candidates.
  • Staffing professionals, combining this information with their expertise in sourcing creative talent, can more easily assess the best fits between hiring managers and creative workers.
  • In MSP engagements, program managers should coordinate closely with staffing partners on submitted candidates and their needs.
  • Because highly creative workers tend to be mavericks, contingent workforce leaders should be willing to champion their prospective candidates to hiring managers, making cases for non-traditional yet innovative talent whose pros outweigh perceived cons.

Technology for Humans Requires Human Input

In his groundbreaking work Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Pinketty predicted that much of the economic growth we can expect to see between this year and 2025 will flow from advances in computing, artificial intelligence, data and robotics. This progress also brings concerns about the income inequality and vocational losses a mechanized society might create.

MIT Professor Zeynep Ton explained in The Good Jobs Strategy that these examples fail to paint a broader, more realistic picture. Even the most powerful systems require human input and judgment; a purely technological approach to work and civilization would eventually collapse. The relevance and importance of the human element can’t be ignored. Artificial intelligence (AI) can’t exist and grow without the context of the human experience to inform it. Cognitive scientists refer to this discrepancy as the availability bias: people tend to place greater emphasis on information that’s easy to come by, such as data on a spreadsheet, rather than intangibles like the realities involved in the everyday interactions and operations of a business.

As we scramble to keep pace with technology and narrow our educational focus on STEM skills, it’s easy to neglect the role that creativity plays in the process. Machines and data can produce some wonderful things. Yet as Harvey Mudd College students and professors have shown us, coming up with the next big idea demands the inclusion of the dreamers, philosophers, artists and creative minds behind the science.


Sunil Bagai
Sunil Bagai
Sunil is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, thought leader and influencer who is transforming the way companies think about and acquire talent. Blending vision, technology and business skills honed in the most innovative corporate environments, he has launched a new model for recruitment called Crowdstaffing which is being tapped successfully top global brands. Sunil is passionate about building a company that provides value to the complete staffing ecosystem including clients, candidates and recruiters.
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