Economics: The Most Employable Liberal Art


Would you like fries with that degree?” Liberal arts majors have long been the brunt of employability jokes, and some of them are true. With above-average unemployment and limited earning potential, many liberal arts majors can expect to find employment challenges upon graduation. But one major stands out among the rest as a strong resource for employment: economics.

Why Economics Majors are So Employable

While economics is technically classified as a liberal arts degree, it’s the only one with the distinction of offering both technical skills and a broad liberal arts education. That combination can prove to be very powerful, arming economics grads with in-demand knowledge in business, law, and math that look great on a resume, as well as soft skills that employers really want, including critical thinking, interpersonal abilities, and complex problem solving. Thanks to this powerhouse of technical-liberal skills, economics majors can find employment in a wide range of careers.

“An economics degree opens a lot of doors,” says Dr. Anca M. Cotet with the Seton Hall Department of Economics and Legal Studies. Chris Mader, managing director of corporate accounts with Randstad agrees.

“An education in economics is good preparation for almost any career path,” says Mader. “Economics majors generally have a holistic view of the business, and learn invaluable business skills and acumen that will be used throughout one’s career, no matter which industry they choose.” With these great opportunities, economics majors also enjoy a demand that puts them among the top majors by salary potential.

Earnings

Mader identifies economics as one of the most lucrative majors, and recent reports support that assertion. In a 2013 PayScale college salary report, economics was ranked 15th out of 130 different majors, bested only by engineering, statistics, computer science, physics, and government degrees. With a starting salary of $48,500 and a mid-career salary of $94,900, there is no other comparable degree in either liberal arts or business that even comes close to the earning potential that economics majors enjoy. Economics majors earn more than their peers in business ($41,400/$70,000) and finance ($47,700/$85,400), and economics majors are especially competitive compared to others in liberal arts. Classics is the second-highest-ranked liberal arts degree with earnings of $35,300 to start and $75,900 by mid-career.

Skills

No other degree allows students to out-earn business, finance, even chemistry majors and industrial engineers while also enjoying a liberal arts education. This is in large part due to the broad set of skills that are associated with an economics degree. “Because it is both empirical and theoretical, mastering economics gives a student a set of tools with which to analyze and better understand the world around them,” says Michael Montgomery, economic development consultant and adjunct professor at Lawrence Technological University.

Montgomery recommends that students who enjoy puzzles, patterns, and math games consider economics as a major, as those interests translate well into quantitative skills that economics students possess. And it’s those same quantitative skills that are transferable to many different fields, says Montgomery. When considering potential candidates with an economics background, he looks for strong quantitative skills as well as a broad understanding of the field.

Mader sees economics majors more broadly, identifying not just business, puzzles, and statistics as economic student interests, but reading and psychology as well. These interests in soft skills support the emotional intelligence skills that make economics majors so flexible, developing critical thinking and communication that Mader believes make economics grads more competitive than others. Graduates can use emotional intelligence and quantitative skills to connect the dots between business, financials, and the boardroom, says Mader.

Career Outlook

For new economics grads, Cotet identifies likely sources of employment: finance, insurance, sales, marketing, and production. Graduates may even go on to work as research analysts with economics consulting firms, using data to advise on business strategies, legal economic evidence, or public policy. Still others may work for government or nonprofit institution think tanks, as economic theory is used to understand social trends including crime, education, and fertility.

Mader also identifies fields with major talent gaps as careers that economics majors may not have considered already. These include engineering and accounting, both of which have a great need for qualified candidates. Engineers are highly in demand, as are accountants.

In the long term, experienced professionals with an economics degree may have C-suite positions to look forward to. “Employees with economics degrees have every opportunity to become very valuable in the board room,” says Mader. “Many C-level executives I have had the opportunity to meet have degrees in economics.”

Opportunities in Economics

This liberal arts education with both quantitative and soft skills can take you places. But where, exactly?

CEO

Mader’s view of CEOs with economics degrees may be surprising, but it’s based in reality. Famous economics major CEOs both current and former include Ted Turner (CNN), Steve Ballmer (Microsoft), Meg Whitman (eBay), Donald Trump, and Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway). In fact, according to research from Bentley College, economics majors are among the most likely majors to make the corner office, and they’re 250% more likely to become an S&P 500 CEO than business majors. Bentley researchers explain that economics majors make great CEOs due to their analytical and problem solving skills, paired with their big picture perspective and knowledge of markets.

We don’t have to tell you that CEO and other C-suite positions offer great earning potential and future career opportunities, but we’ll go ahead and spell it out anyway. The median annual wage for CEOs is $168,140. The best paid CEOs work in securities and commodity contracts intermediation and brokerage, earning an annual mean wage of $232,020. Other top earners include water transporation, apparel, financial investments, and software publishing. CEOs may stick around at the executive level, or move on to become chairmen of the board.

History has also shown that econ majors have reached the highest “CEO” level in our country. John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan all studied economics. Economics majors make great presidents for the same reason they make great CEOs: they have a big picture perspective and a highly informed view of financial markets that is especially useful in a turbulent economic climate. Combined with problem solving, critical thinking, and communication skills, we’re surprised there aren’t more presidents with an economic background.

Analyst

While CEO or presidential positions represent opportunities in the long term, economic analyst positions offer a successful future for recent economics graduates. At Berkeley, many recent grads become analysts or consultants with major firms like Accenture and Bain and Company. Economic analyst positions are also available with government agencies, specifically the CIA and FBI.

Financial analysts use their up-to-date knowledge on economic trends, news, and strategy to analyze investments and business decisions. These much sought after skills add up to a great career, with $74,350 in median pay and a faster than average outlook for job growth. But, there are sacrifices involved, as many financial analysts work more than 40 hours per week, often in the range of 50 to 70.

Accountant/Auditor

Another popular position for economics grads from Berkeley, accountants and may work for major firms like Deloitte and Ernst and Young. Like financial analysts, accountants and auditors use their economic backgrounds to assess financial records and operations, ensuring that organizations run efficiently. Unlike financial analysts, most accountants do not work excessive hours, except during busy months like the end of the budget year or tax season.

Accountants and auditors can expect to earn about $61,690 per year, and enjoy average job growth. Those with a special certification, like Certified Public Accountants will have the best job prospects, but overall, demand for strong financial documentation is high due to financial crisis and regulations.

Entrepreneur

While job prospects are good for economics grads, they don’t always work for someone else. Many economics majors like David Greenberg, president of Parliament Tutors have realized that their understanding of market forces can be put to good use in their very own businesses. Greenberg uses his economics degree every day in business development, sales, marketing, and recruitment. Schools like the University of North Carolina have caught onto this smart pairing, offering an economics degree with an entrepreneurship minor.

Salary and career outlook for entrepreneurs vary widely, as with entrepreneurship comes an uncertain future that depends largely on your potential and drive to grow. On average, entrepreneurs will earn about $65,000 per year. That is, if they can stay in business: according to the SBA, 50% of small businesses fail, and 95% of small businesses will fail in the first five years. But for those with ideas that really take off, earnings can jump to the millions, with financial security and a promising business outlook.

Liberal arts majors have much to offer employers: creative thinking, problem solving, communication, and cultural understanding, to name a few. But so often, they struggle to find work, or worse, end up in careers that don’t fully utilize their considerable talents. Economics offers a bright spot of employability, bringing together liberal arts education with practical business and finance skills. Students who are interested in pursuing economics as a major should network and talk to industry veterans and recruiters to learn more about the current career climate for economic professionals.

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