Creating a Brighter Workforce With the Arts

The skills taught by the arts will contribute to success in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century by Robert L. Lynch

In a 2006 address to the Stanford University Academic Council highlighting the role of the arts in the 21st century, the university’s president, John L. Hennessy, noted: “The arts can help us break out of traditional patterns of thinking and adopt fresh approaches to intellectual experiences. Discontinuous innovations require novel thinking and breakthroughs in how a particular problem or challenge is approached. I believe the arts offer an expanded tool set for learning and understanding that can enhance creative thinking skills.”

Hennessy’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) credentials are impeccable, with a Ph.D. in computer science and roles as founder and former CEO of MIPS Computer Systems. However, his passionate commitment to the role of the arts in education is evidenced by his leadership in redesigning Stanford’s curriculum to include a new cross-disciplinary institute, the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts.

In his presentation to the academic council, he acknowledged the one thing most arts advocates know all too well: “… to strengthen the arts [at Stanford], to capitalize on its enormous potential, we must get better at articulating its importance in today’s world. We must possess not only the resources but also the creative flexibility to think differently about the arts.”

The reality of life in the 21st century is that the skills associated with artistic practices — creative thinking, self-discipline, collaboration and innovation — are skills that are in great demand. In fact, in our rapidly changing global economy, the skills the arts teach may be mandatory for everyone’s success.

Changing Workplace
Business leaders recognize that our workforce is rapidly aging and a mass retirement of baby boomers is looming. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2010, the cohort of 35- to 44-year-old workers will shrink by 10 percent, and for the first time in 25 years, the youngest workforce is experiencing the fastest growth overall.

The type of work we will be doing in the near future also is changing. The National Center on Education and the Economy’s New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce projects that in 10 years, the proto-typical U.S. industry will be engaged in “creative work” — research, development, marketing and sales and global supply chain management. These areas depend on leadership rooted in creativity, imagination and the arts.

Whether the United States succeeds on a global scale is by no means certain: a major threat to America’s global competitiveness is the decades-long erosion of the arts — dance, music, theatre and the visual arts — in our educational system, which has been exacerbated by federal legislation failing to live up to its promise to prepare all young people for success in the 21st century.

Eliminating the arts because of arbitrary policies or lack of adequate funding only further removes U.S. students from a curriculum that fosters 21st century skills for 21st century jobs. This threat will not be answered by traditional public policy. A new, more creative response is required.

Economic Impact
Arts education not only provides artistic training, but teaches children creativity, spatial thinking and abstract reasoning, all critical skill sets for tomorrow’s software designers, scientists, entrepreneurs and engineers. Parents and educators can feel optimistic that their arts-educated kids will have a clear shot at being employed in the arts-related, creative industries, as well as in the new innovative 21st century economy.

Good news for arts-educated kids: A job is waiting for them in the nonprofit arts. Americans for the Arts has been tracking the economic impact of the nonprofit arts on communities for well over a decade. Our 2007 study, “Arts & Economic Prosperity III: The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations and Their Audiences,” indicates that nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry (including your local theater or local museum) generates $166 billion in economic activity. This economic activity creates 1.3 million arts jobs. According to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2 million artists collect a paycheck today.

More great news for arts-educated kids: There is an ever-increasing number of jobs available for them in the for-profit arts industry as web designers, music store owners and sound engineers and in sectors ranging from entertainment to publishing. Americans for the Arts’ annual “Creative Industries: Business & Employment in the Arts” study reports some 612,000 arts-centric businesses in the United States.

To effectively prepare students for the new workplace, schools must consider investing in their own creative workforce. Students throughout their preK-12 academic career will need access to the knowledge and skills in the arts that only specialists in music, theatre, visual arts and dance can provide. The presence of trained arts specialists not only ensures sustained and quality student engagement in various artistic disciplines, but also promotes collaboration with classroom teachers to draw connections between the arts and other subject areas.

America’s nonprofit arts industries, including your local arts commissions, museums and visual or performing arts centers, can be important partners for school leaders. Reaching out to local arts industry leaders can benefit schools in many ways, from partnering to find new resources, to linking schools with artists and community arts resources, to engaging in service learning projects, to advocating for the arts programs to the greater community.

Workforce Development
The world of the arts depicted through the creative industry and economic impact data should be enough to dispel the “starving artist” myth. Creative workers, including artists, administrators, technicians and all those who provide support to the industry, are all around us. They live, work, perform, teach, exhibit, pay taxes, vote and even serve on local city councils and school boards. 

Yet the arts are not well understood by much of the general public and remain marginalized in our schools. Changing this public mindset, dispelling the old myths and envisioning the enormous possibilities that will open up in our schools and in our communities when we do so is a responsibility we all share.

Collecting Arts Education Data Under NCLB

Arts education boosters took delight when the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002 listed the arts as one of the “core academic subjects” of public education. The federal law named 10 core subjects in all, a designation qualifying arts instruction for federal grants and other support.

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Robert Redford, co-hosting the Americans for the Arts National Arts Policy Roundtable at Sundance, said: “It is crucial that we re-examine how we prepare students to succeed, and indeed thrive, in the workplace and society of the future. We believe that the arts are a key component of meeting this challenge.”

In 2006, Scottish Executive Social Research published “Arts and Employability,” which investigated the effect of an arts education on later employability by examining longitudinal data of nearly 12,000 young people. The most intriguing empirical findings include these:

  • The rate of employment appears higher among young people leaving school at a later stage who took arts subjects, compared to those who did not take arts subjects; and
  • Students who took at least two arts subjects at standard grade tended to have a higher rate of employment than those who took only one arts subject.

The data also show that taking arts courses in school benefits occupations that do not require secondary -education:

  • Among young people leaving school at the earliest opportunity, employability is generally higher for those who had studied arts subjects;
  • Students who leave school at an early stage after having taken arts subjects are less likely to find themselves in a negative labor market position three years later, compared to the average young person leaving school early; and
  • Young people who had studied music or graphic communication are among the most employable of those who leave school at the earliest opportunity.

The report offers an encouraging assessment of the importance of an arts education to workforce development: “[Y]oung people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds gaining confidence at school, as demonstrated by drama or music students, are more likely to enjoy higher salaries and enter professional or managerial jobs.”

For the arts to effect learning, however, their presence in the schools must be meaningful. Arts specialists must be present and respected by their colleagues; sequential and grade-level appropriate instruction and learning in all artistic disciplines must be comprehensive; potential community arts partnerships must be sought and utilized; and the arts must be incorporated into the educational mission.

A Business Case
The demonstrated impact of the creative industries on the local economy presents an unprecedented opportunity for school administrators to open up a new dialogue with local business leaders and elected officials about educating the 21st century workforce. Despite the many challenges, change is possible: new partnerships, new public/private alliances in support of a new way of thinking about education are waiting in the wings.

Making Movies and Artists in Montana

Working with Montana public schools, retired Hollywood producer, local rancher and now high school media mogul Peter Rosten is the keystone in Montana’s plan for economic success in the future. The new strategy? Movie making.

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At Americans for the Arts, we launched ArtsVote 2008 to elicit arts education policy position statements from all presidential candidates, and it’s working. For the first time, presidential candidates were talking during the primaries about the importance of arts education and how they will promote it. Across the country, mayors are holding press conferences announcing the economic impact of the arts in their communities. Many cities, towns and regions have announced major new initiatives around building their creative industries. Business leaders, elected officials and citizens are rallying behind these efforts.

A 2007 article in The New York Times showcased the private library collections of several well-known and successful multibillionaire CEOs. What was most illuminating about what these hardcore business leaders read and looked to for inspiration and ideas was how overwhelmingly “artsy” their reading lists turned out to be. Who would have guessed that the library of Nike founder Phil Knight includes volumes of Asian history, art and poetry and that Apple’s Steve Jobs has an “inexhaustible interest” in the poetry of William Blake?

Sidney Harman, founder of Harman Industries, a $3 billion producer of sound systems for luxury cars, theaters and airports, once tried to convince his senior staff to find him poets to hire as managers. In explaining his rationale, Harman said, “Poets are our original systems thinkers. They look at our most complex environments and they reduce the complexity to something they begin to understand.” He credits Shakespeare, Tennyson and the poetry he found in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Camus’s Stranger in helping him create worker-friendly factories.

To Harman, Jobs and Knight, the arts mean business. These men realize that the arts are not only about aesthetics but about imaginative ideas, abstract thoughts and creative problem solving.

The Human Element
Humanity is at a crossroads. Children growing up in the United States are living in an interconnected world where our ability to sustain a high-quality American way of life, a vibrant business economy and peaceful, positive relationships with other citizens of the world depends on our ability to effectively develop the creative and cultural capacities demanded of us now.

The true impact of the arts far exceeds our ability to put a dollar amount on it. Throughout history, the arts have built the infrastructure from which human knowledge and cultural values have been forged. However, in a century characterized by the growing dominance of the knowledge-based economy, ensuring that our children master the creative skills and habits of mind that fuel our knowledge is a capital investment we cannot afford to miss.

Robert Lynch is president and CEO of Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C. E-mail: rlynch@artsusa.org