Dear Mr. President, Don't Apologize to Art History Majors


President Obama at GE’s Waukesha plant, January 30, 2014 Darren Hauck/EPA
At least someone said it.  Regarding President Obama's statements in Wisconsin last week, please let's not make the man apologize. He accurately compared the salary of a skilled manufacturing job to someone with an art history degree.  It's sad but certainly not his fault that those holding BAs or even MAs in art history can't find decent paying work.  This is not to say that the arts and culture jobs are not important to the economy, they accounted for approximately 3.2% of GDP or $504 billion in 2011 (about $200 billion in advertising).  And the arts also have net effect on local tourism, international legitimacy and other areas that are somewhat intangible.

However the economic numbers are in and they are quite conclusive about job prospects and compensation for the arts industries. In the US, the total number of filled arts jobs (somewhere north of 100,000 positions that already occupied) is actually equal to or less than the total unfilled jobs for a singular fields like nurses (105,000), truck drivers (103,000), sales reps (350,000), machine operators (140,000) or software developers (108,000), and others on a given month.  Let that soak in: there are roughly as many unfilled truck driving positions available than there are total arts and cultural jobs filled.  And their rates of pay are at or well above the average salaries in the arts.

Job openings levels and rates by industry and region, seasonally adjusted, Bureau of Labor Statistics
Job openings are the number of job openings on the last business day of the month

But let's back up.  In Obama's speech he used the phrase "with an art history degree" instead of "with an art history job".  That's quite the turn of phrase Mr. President and precisely your point.  Where are these art history jobs exactly?  They are rare for a reason, an economic reason.  This is the market's way of telling us that these jobs are not as needed (economically) as other trades at the moment.   As Adam Smith would say, it's the "invisible hand" of the market at work, making sure that the most needed positions will remain relatively more plentiful and will pay more than the less needed positions.

What happens in the US (and in other nations that with higher education choices like the arts) is that the workforce is sometimes "mal-educated" for the current job market.  On any given day, the art history talent graduating in the US outstrips the art history occupations available and that compounds each year.  Meanwhile engineering, information technology and the skilled trades are desperate for workers, so desperate in fact that they are hiring from other countries to fill these positions.  So while the Twittersphere and Blogosphere has chastised President Obama's comments, the complaints about unemployment and poor compensation in the arts and cultural industries while immigrants will be filling open positions in other US trades seems somewhat short sighted of the larger job market issues.

One issue is that incentives are not aligned for colleges to match the workforce needs with the appropriate degrees.  Most colleges and universities have very loose quotas on how many art history, English literature, musical composition, dance or drama majors they will accept.  These departments (as well as engineering, communications and medical departments) recognize that increased tuition is a source of more revenue.  However, this revenue is actually coming from somewhere - the student - who is hoping that they will able to pay for their tuition with an appropriate job.  In short they would like to pay for their education with what they learned, but more and more the arts majors will be settling for jobs they could have held without their arts degree.  Is it surprising (or even sustainable) that "arts education" is the second highest category of arts and cultural revenue?



In fact, the excessive amount of arts graduates may actually be contributing to the low pay for the few jobs that will be out there.  There are relatively few arts degrees graduating each year (0.2 percent of working adults with college degree majored in art history - National Center for Education Statistics) but even fewer art history jobs. This relative glut of candidates overwhelms the dire job prospects and drives the salary down.  Simple economics says that if enough people want a coveted job, then they can certainly lower the salary based on that demand.  So don't apologize Mr. President - you didn't cause this situation and you don't need to apologize for the way that the job market works.  We get it.  

But what can be done?  Hopefully the amount of arts graduates will adjust to the job market over time and maybe "the invisible hand" will raise the salary somewhat.  However, recent graduates will hurt for a long time.  Perhaps instead of government reform, the faster option is an attitude adjustment at home.  Like a lot of people of my generation, I was told "you can be anything you want to be when you grow up".  Yes, but there is a big difference between calling yourself an art historian and being paid to be one.  

I did my minor in art history and I don't regret it - but I'm one of the few from my program that has a job related to the arts with a decent salary (although lower than an IT counterpart).  Sadly if you ran the numbers my art history minor is probably in some small way contributing to the glut and the lowered salary that art history grads will receive (or never receive) for the education they paid for.  Still, I don't want an apology from President Obama.  I think we should own up to our shortsightedness regarding arts and culture jobs, scrutinize the rates at which we graduate particular degrees and start adjusting our expectations to the realities of today's job market.