Perspective: The Real Value of an English Degree in the 21st Century

The English degree

Today’s guest post is by Alexa Thompson.  She discusses how the Internet of the 21st century, dominated by websites in English, is creating more jobs for those who communicate well in English, regardless of where they live. Building on Melibee’s post about global skills that are needed in today’s marketplace, Alexa argues that with English as the lingua franca of the world of business, English degrees remain valuable.

Based on the number of graduates who achieve professional success within their field of study, many academic experts have long considered collegiate degrees in English to be impractical and irrelevant. However, English is today considered the international language of business, and those who can communicate in it well hold great value within the global job market. In addition, widespread Internet access has enabled millions of proficient English speakers worldwide to work remotely from home.

According to Payscale’s 2010 College Salary Report, most jobs for English majors are not very lucrative. Technical writers, journalists and literary historians fared the best, earning between $66,000 and $73,000 after 10 years in the field. The median salaries for paralegals, copywriters and social workers, on the other hand, all fell below $54,000 after 10 years in the field.

Another problem with the English field is job availability. With the slow death of print media and the rise of online self-publishing, many professional writers have struggled to find work. In January 2012, Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that English majors faced a 9.2 percent unemployment rate – a dire figure outmatched only by majors like architecture, religious studies, art, history and music.

Regardless of this nationwide reputation, experts today say there are many reasons to obtain an English degree – for native speakers, as well as individuals from countries where English is not traditionally spoken. One such reason is the globalized economy, and the role that the English language has played in its progression. According to the Boston Globe, roughly one quarter of the world’s population speaks or is currently learning to speak English. As a result, the language is commonly used in a wide range of international endeavors, from air traffic control to the hospitality industry.

One platform where English usage is particularly prevalent is on the Internet; roughly 80 percent of the world’s electronically recorded information is written in English. “English is dominant in a way that no language has ever been before,” said linguist John McWhorter. “It is vastly unclear to me what actual mechanism could uproot English given conditions as they are.”

Historically, native English speakers and non-native speakers from First World countries have filled the bulk of these international positions. However, a recent movement called ‘impact sourcing’ is directly targeting the English students of nations in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe who are less costly to employ, though equally skilled in the English language as their counterparts from wealthier countries.

The market for impact sourcing is currently valued at $4.5 billion, and advocates argue this industry is highly beneficial to the global economy. “[Just] as microfinance demonstrated that poor people are trustworthy borrowers, impact sourcing is demonstrating that people from villages and urban slums are reliable knowledge workers,” wrote New York Times columnist David Bornstein in November 2011.

Thanks to web-based opportunities, English majors are not simply limited to working in the business world. Many degree holders find work as bloggers, online content writers, SEO technicians and social media representatives. Because these positions are often staffed remotely, suitable applicants are not limited by geographical proximity. Online job search sites, such as oDesk, Monster and eLance, often act as intermediaries between English majors and paying clients.

The Internet has also a wealth of resources for those who wish to learn English. Web users can access tutorials, study guides, language translators and other resources to improve their English writing and speaking abilities – and increase their chances of eventually finding work.

Though many English majors are currently bemoaning the current economic doldrums, the idea that these degrees are worthless is a grave misconception. Thanks to the continuously globalizing economy and the prevalence of English on the Internet, English students worldwide are finding employment opportunities that have only begun to materialize.

About the Author:  Alexa Russell is a freelance writer from the Seattle/Tacoma area who is looking into a graduate program at UC Berkeley and spends most of her time mentally preparing to take out loans and take on TA-ing, hopefully.