What Employers Want: Thoughts from a History BA in Business

by John Rowe

I write as a University of Wisconsin history major, a lawyer, and a retired utility-industry executive who headed three different companies over a 28-year period.

I can answer the question “what do employers value in history majors?”—more specifically, what does a history major bring to an electric utility like Exelon, or to Tesla, Microsoft, Apple, Lucasfilm, or Morgan Stanley?—with real confidence and relative precision. We bring perspective on the flux of institutions; we think and write with clarity; we have a grasp of enduring human foibles; and we find delicious relevance in vignettes. I remember George Lucas at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History explaining that the inspiration for his Star Wars creatures came from the collections held by such museums.

Less elegant but more on point may be the Byzantine maxims about using the Pechenegs to fight the Slavs or Bulgars, or the German general staff’s view that the Polish and Ukrainian plains were the best place to fight the Soviets. A good utility executive finds allies in unlikely places. For example, advocating a carbon tax is not only sound policy, it provides excellent air cover for operating a nuclear fleet. Meet the enemy as far as you can.

A more complex and vexing illustration: whatever value I ascribe to markets and property rights, my successes as a utility CEO had more to do with understanding that the property rights in owning a dam on a river, operating a nuclear power plant, or stringing wires down a street are more fragile than those of an individual owning a bank account. A history degree helped me see that rights are not as absolute as I might like them to be.

My own experiences are in an industry that is highly regulated (though not in straightforward ways) and highly technical (in 1930s ways).

Whatever the era or product, high- tech industries live or die on their ability to anticipate what the customer wants before she does.

Surely those are liberal arts insights, not merely market survey data. Once, while addressing a group of software company employees on the pace of change, I pointed out a conference-room window and said, “the average age of the power plants keeping those lights on is 40 years, and the average age of the wires is 30 years.” Software changes even more rapidly than computer chips, but determining what is changing rapidly, what is changing slowly, and how people respond to the pace of change requires a particular skill set— and these are the kinds of questions addressed squarely by historians.

So here is my quick advice to history students:

  1. By all means study history. Clio (history’s muse) is an endless source of fascination and very good company when the world seems to be going to hell around you.
  2. If you do not plan to teach history or obtain a professional degree, pick up some courses that will be relevant in your first job and do some summer work to extend and enhance your academic degree. Be useful promptly; seek perspective later.
  3. Hunt. I obtained my first CEO job at a little company in Maine by driving to each director’s home—not to show that I knew Maine but to show that I would learn. Employers expect to teach you, but they want to know that you appreciate the need to learn.
  4. When applying your critical thinking to frail human institutions, remember that the very best steam turbine is only about 40 percent efficient, and no human institution is as efficient as a steam engine.

My farming parents taught me that work is something that is useful to its consumer. Professors George Mosse and Willard Hurst—great historians both—are the reasons that I now teach high school history and serve as chairman of the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Together they helped me succeed as a CEO and keep my own successes, failures, contributions, and beliefs in perspective.