Labor, Life, and the Pursuit of Happiness for Arts Alumni

Posted by Kristy Callaway, Ms. Sally Gaskill, Jun 25, 2013 0 comments

Happy 100th Birthday to the U.S. Department of Labor! Our rotund and reluctant mid-wife, President Taft, on his last day in office, signed legislation creating and delivering the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), giving workers a direct seat in the President’s Cabinet for the first time.

DOL’s mission: “To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.”

DOL has created one hundred buckets in which all jobs/industries are categorized. The data presented are obtained from employer or establishment surveys. Performing Arts shares its bucket with Spectator Sports and Related Industries. And Related Industries includes: Promoters of Performing Arts, Agents and Managers of Artists/Entertainers, Independent Artists, Writers and Performers. Another subset includes Musicians, Singers, Producers, Directors, Public Relations, Ushers, Lobby Attendants, and Ticket Takers. You can similarly search job/industry categories for Architecture & Engineering, Arts & Design, and Media and Communication.

One can drill down into occupations to learn job descriptions, functions, work environment, education/training/experience, compensation, number of jobs in nation, and outlook (future growth projections) of said job.


Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute recently released, “Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings,” which sets forth unemployment rates by occupation and maintains that a college degree in the arts just might be a bad investment. Additionally, those with higher-level educations in general are less likely to be unemployed and more likely to generate greater income than those with little education and making minimum wage or slightly above.

The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) tracks the lives and careers of arts graduates in America through an annual online survey, data management, and institutional improvement system designed to enhance the impact of arts-school education.

Since launching in 2008, SNAAP has collected data on the educational experiences and career outcomes of nearly 90,000 arts graduates from an impressive list of over 250 institutions throughout the US and Canada. Current analysis is based on the 65,000 people who responded to the 2011 and/or 2012 surveys. These alumni graduated from institutions ranging from large research universities to small liberal arts colleges, as well as specialized schools of the arts.

What can the SNAAP data tell us about the value of an arts education in this economy? I posed some questions to Sally Gaskill, SNAAP’s Director.

Q: How likely is it that an arts graduate will actually get a job after graduating?

A: SNAAP data show that people with arts degrees have the same rates of employment and unemployment as their peers from other fields: about 4% of all college graduates are currently unemployed and looking for work, and that holds true for people with arts degrees as well.

Q: Okay, but that’s for all kinds of jobs. What about arts graduates who actually want to work in the arts?

A: One of the most surprising findings is that not all people with arts degrees actually intended to work in their field of study; 17% of SNAAP respondents tell us that they never intended to work in the arts. Beyond that, SNAAP data tell us about the careers that arts graduates pursue. First, 66% of people with undergraduate degrees in the arts say their first job after college was “closely” (46%) or “somewhat” (20%) related to their arts training. Those with graduate degrees had better success, with 60% reporting that their first job after receiving their graduate degree (MFA, etc.) was “closely related” and an additional 18% got a “somewhat related” job, for a total of 78%. Another surprising finding: only 3% of arts graduates currently work in food service!

Q: What are alumni saying about their preparedness for the ‘real world’?

A: SNAAP asks arts graduates to rate their institution’s effectiveness at helping them acquire 16 different skills and competencies. On the low end, only 22% of all arts alumni told us that their institution helped them to develop financial and business management skills. Additionally, only 25% said their institution helped them acquire or develop entrepreneurial skills. A typical respondent wrote, “I could have strongly used some business and management skills...I came out of this institution with no knowledge of how an artist should/could/would survive in the ‘real world.’” The good news, I think, is that many institutions are responding to this problem by introducing courses in entrepreneurship and professional practices. I hope that in ten years new SNAAP data will begin to show that the tide has changed.

Q: If arts alumni are not employed in the arts, did their arts training prepare them at all for their current occupation?

A: SNAAP data reveal much about the value of intensive arts training. For example, 93% of SNAAP respondents say that their institution helped them to develop the skills of creative thinking and problem solving, and 89% developed or acquired the ability to think critically and analyze arguments and information. Since creativity is the number one leadership attribute prized by global businesses (according to an IBM poll of 1,500 corporate CEOs worldwide), one could say that an arts education can prepare students extremely well for the economy.

A couple of my favorite quotes from SNAAP respondents:

  • My arts training helped to teach me collaboration and communication, as well as empathy for people in all types of situations. I use these skills daily in my job as a police officer.
  • As a litigator, my acting training has been invaluable.

Q: Today’s college graduates have a growing debt load. How do arts alumni fare in this area?

A: SNAAP respondents report a wide range of information regarding student debt. (Remember that SNAAP respondents represent all decades, having graduated anytime from 2012 on back.) A full 43% with undergraduate arts degrees had no school debt at all, with 39% of those with graduate degrees reporting no debt. Of those holding undergraduate arts degrees, 14% reported total debt of less than $10,000 and 5% had more than $60,000 in school debt. Twelve percent of those with graduate degrees reported their student loan debt (from their graduate institutions) as being under $10,000, while 9% had a total school debt of over $60,000.

Q: Regarding quality of life and happiness, what do alumni tell you? Are they happy?

A: This is perhaps one of the most compelling take-aways from SNAAP. Arts graduates are overwhelmingly satisfied with their current work – both those who work primarily as artists (91% are satisfied overall) as well as those who work primarily outside the arts (80%). They are happy with their life choices and would get an arts education again if they had the chance to go back. They don’t make lots of money but they are happy with their work-life balance and ability to be creative at work.

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