The liberal arts degree is alive and well — and critically important to the future of tech

Biotechnology Research, female scientist mixing a chemical formula
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The job market in the U.S. is experiencing a compounding problem. With technological development only accelerating, old-world jobs are being automated at an increasing rate. At the same time, the new jobs being created to work alongside digital technologies are going unfilled because of an overall lack in fluency of digital skills.

Last year alone this compounding problem resulted in more than 2.4 million vacant STEM jobs — that's a figure larger than the population of Houston, the fourth-largest city in the nation. Just two years before, the U.S. graduated only 568,000 students in STEM disciplines. It doesn't take a STEM grad to see that there's a basic math problem here.

And with so many people assuming that STEM jobs must be filled by STEM talent, it's easy to see why roughly 40% of the American public believes we're in a crisis.

That's where liberal arts graduates can fill a critical need.

Approaching tech in an entirely new way

While digital skills like coding and data science are important, it's the soft skills — a strong work ethic; self-motivation; social, emotional and leadership skills; and holistic skills (like problem-finding) that are truly the key components for success in the modern economy.

By investing in liberal arts graduates, we gain people with human-centered skills who can approach problems in entirely new ways, contributing to out-of-the-box thinking in a digital age.

Liberal arts graduates bring a depth and breadth of knowledge from across the humanities and social sciences that complement the hard skills of engineers and data scientists. And in a world that increasingly interacts with technology in every facet of daily life, it's increasingly important that technology reflects the world around us.

When a customer visits a website or withdraws money from an ATM, we need technology that not only works but works for the user. How do the people of the world interface with the technology they use every day? Is it user-friendly? Visually pleasing? These questions, and so many others, are not nice-to-haves. They're critically important to the success of technological endeavors, and they are answered in the affirmative only when a diverse group of individuals designs it in the first place.

Liberal arts graduates are also trained in how to learn.

That's why at Infosys we're partnering with liberal arts colleges to train the workforce of the future. We're working with Trinity College to bridge liberal arts graduates into careers in technology. By investing in liberal arts graduates, we gain people with human-centered skills who can approach problems in entirely new ways, contributing to out-of-the-box thinking in a digital age. Through this program, students complement their core liberal arts education with technological skills and applied learning that will position them to thrive in the digital workplace.

"By recruiting candidates from a broad set of backgrounds and experiences who know how to learn and training them with the digital skills they need to succeed in today's economy, American workers can become even greater problem-finders and creative problem-framers."

My friend Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity College, refers to the liberal arts model as a T-model, or "breadth with depth." Students gain expertise in individual subjects through a breadth of well-honed social skills that allow them to collaborate across disciplines. Because students gain such a broad education, they learn to connect disparate ideas threaded through many subjects. And because students are exposed to such a wide variety of subjects, they are more likely to be aware of their strengths and learning styles, allowing them to adapt more quickly and flexibly to evolving challenges.

This aligns well with the antidisciplinary world we're moving toward. Soon the T-model will give way to the Z-model. Creativity and critical thinking, paired with fluency in digital skills, are the key qualities needed in today's economy. In this economy, intelligent automation will provide real-time data and problem-solving capabilities, giving workers the bandwidth to use their creativity to problem-find and interpret the data, spotting the areas where further development is needed.

Building the workforce of the future

We know liberal arts students know how to learn. Now all they need is the opportunity. That's why we need a nationwide model of workforce development that recognizes private enterprise must play the leading role in embracing workforce transformation. As employers, we can provide the training and tools necessary to build the workforce of the future. By broadening the aperture on the candidates we recruit to include students with a high "learnability index," we can solve the talent crisis and improve our products and services at the same time.

We're doing the same thing in a more specialized partnership with Rhode Island School of Design, which is helping us to foster the continued development of 1,000 Infosys designers across the globe. This world-renowned institution educates the brightest minds in art and design, those whose expertise can help to close the design talent gap in technology. With the proper training in digital skills, talented designers can solve complex challenges and create client solutions at the junctures of several siloed disciplines, including the humanities, liberal arts, public policy, economics and engineering.

Rhode Island School of Design campus.
John Greim | LightRocket | Getty Images
Rhode Island School of Design campus.

We're also working to bring community college graduates into the fold. With more than 50% of U.S. higher-education students enrolled in community colleges, we need to do more to tap into this talent pool. Infosys formed a partnership with the Community College of Rhode Island to develop a new center that will create educational programming to prepare students for the digital economy. This new center, the Digital Economy Aspirations Lab (DEAL), supports students through mentorship opportunities and exposure to real-world client challenges at our Providence Innovation and Technology Center.

Two in five Americans think we're in a talent crisis. They may be right for now, but I think we're moving toward a future that is exciting. By recruiting candidates from a broad set of backgrounds and experiences who know how to learn and training them with the digital skills they need to succeed in today's economy, American workers can become even greater problem-finders and creative problem-framers.

That's why the liberal arts degree isn't really dead. In fact, it's alive and well and can help businesses better serve the world.

For more on tech, transformation and the future of work, join CNBC at the @ Work: People + Machines Summit in San Francisco on Nov. 4. Leaders from Dropbox, Sas, McKinsey and more will teach us how to balance the needs of today with the possibilities of tomorrow, and the winning strategies to compete.