Forget finance, economics, maths, physics and electronics, Banks are all about liberal arts graduates. They love them. They want to hire them. And they are saying so in public.
For English-speaking students in Europe who are less familiar with the term, ‘liberal arts’ is a catch-all phrase encompassing arts, humanities and social sciences (with the exception, in this case, of economics). If you’re a history undergraduate, you’re a liberal arts major. Same if you’re studying English literature.
We already knew that Goldman Sachs likes to liberal arts students – it released a chart showing that liberal artists constitute its second largest cohort of employees last year. This year, it’s been holding special recruitment sessions for liberal arts majors at universities in the U.S.
Now RBS is out penetrating the liberal arts cluster too. The Times reported this morning that the UK bank is pursuing humanities students for its investment banking business. “We still need the mathematicians and economists, we still need those disciplines but what we need to do is leaven it, we need an input from people who have left-field, blue-sky creative thinking, who can bring the ability to ask the tough questions,” Tim Skeet, managing director of RBS capital markets, told the Times. Skeet even invested liberal arts graduates with special powers to prevent finance types from going astray: “If going through this crisis we had had a few more people who could have said – look, explain that to me in plain English . . . I think we might have avoided some of the problems.”
The appeal of liberal arts students doesn’t end with their prosaic approach to complex finance. One head of graduate recruitment told us they benefit from better social skills too – they can, “carry a conversation.”
And yet… banks’ increased interest in humanities graduates may also have a darker side. As Ezra Klein pointed out two years ago, liberal arts graduates form a helpful pool of new talent for banks struggling to keep applications up after the financial crisis. It helps, said Klein, that liberal artists aren’t sure what to do with themselves. “You’re encouraged to take classes in subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills…the finance industry takes advantage of that confusion, attracting students who never intended to work in finance but don’t have any better ideas about where to go.”
It’s also difficult to shake the suspicion that banks are hiring liberal artists for the less ‘sexy’ business areas where talent is harder to come by. Our own research into the people banks hire into front office roles regularly turns up students who’ve graduated in maths and finance. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs seems to be particularly targeting liberal artists for its infrastructure hub in Salt Lake City. In 2010, its Salt Lake City recruiters were reportedly tasked with hiring 35% of staff from a liberal arts background because the firm was convinced that liberal arts majors brought, ‘a unique perspective and set of skills to the table.’