Harvest Public Media
2:12 pm
Wed January 25, 2012

Liberal arts degrees grow jobs at Con Agra

Technology and hands-on computer skills are important assets for most job seekers in today’s economy.

By Clay Masters

While most companies look for computer literacy, some are starting to look a bit broader. Harvest Public Media’s Clay Masters reports how Ag conglomerate ConAgra is opening the door to college graduates with some unlikely degrees:

Remember that old joke about how a liberal arts major says hello? Y’know, you want fries with that? Well, that joke might be turning on those who still use it. Consider that Healthy Choice frozen meal you toss into the microwave. There’s a lot that goes on behind it. I’m not talking about the physical production of that convenient lunch, but just the way you know about it, how it gets to the aisle of your local grocery store in the first place.

“Think of what it takes to produce a product, what it takes to run a factory, to what it takes to run a payroll, all of these processes are reduced to some kind of computer logic,” said Gerrit Schutte, Chief Information Officer at Omaha-based food company ConAgra.

ConAgra is the giant behind brands like Healthy Choice and Slim Jim. And like in any company… behind all of its business operations is its Information Technology department – which is recruiting more employees off the beaten path.

The IT department here is huge… about 700 employees. There are no assigned workspaces. One day a week employees work remotely from home. In 2008 the company revamped its IT internship program to include those who didn’t climb the traditional techie ladder, like Eric Fasse who majored in Communications Studies.

“That initial interview I had was just going over the skills, so they’re to get a bead on what is your IT background, so they’re asking me do you know how to do JavaScript, do you know, and I had to say no to everything and I thought I’m sunk, there’s no way, I’m not going to get a call back,” Fasse said.

Fasse didn’t just get a call back; he eventually got an IT job at ConAgra. So did Holly Barber even though on paper, her resume may have seemed a bit thin.

“So all throughout high school I was definitely a geek and a gamer so I was naturally leaning towards computer science but I didn’t like math so that was the stumbling block for me, so I started as a computer science major but switched to journalism,” Barber said.

The company partners with nearby colleges to grow their own local talent, like Fasse and Barber, right here in Omaha… while still hiring those students who take the normal computer science route.

“We certainly never turn down our computer science people but we look for them to have more than a single dimension in terms of what they bring to the table, just technical talent is not enough,” Shutte said.

Agriculture companies are not the only businesses interested in broadening the hiring pool. Debra Humphreys is with the Association of American Colleges and Universities… an organization that acts as an intermediary between colleges and businesses making sure graduates are prepared for the demands of the rapidly changing workplace. Humphreys also names Siemens and Hewlett Packard as businesses open to nontraditional hiring.

“The big message for today’s college students is to remember that they’re preparing now for a lifetime of work, not just for that first job they’re going to get when they graduate. What we’re hearing from employers over and over again is students really need a combination of broad skills and abilities from a good college education,” Humphreys said.

Humphreys says colleges need to give students more of a chance to get out of the classroom and into the real world. Which some colleges are finding creative ways to do just that. David Keck is the Director of the Raikes School of Computer Science and Management, an honors college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to an internal advisory board made up of deans and professors, the college also has an external board made up of successful business execs.

“We meet twice a year and get lots of feedback on what skills are most in demand in industry and then we translate that back into our coursework,” Keck said.

Keck says everyone at the college gets a job when they graduate because companies want business and computer savvy employees. Computer science students there take a class called Design Studio, where a private business hires them to come up with an idea and make it happen. Conner Dana has a unique situation, where he’s his own client in the class.

“We started a company in March called Vestin our goal was to help students show off samples and snapshots of work that they had completed while they were in college,” Dana said.

So while no one's saying computer science majors won't still be in high demand, it does appear that having some – dare I say liberal arts training while embracing your inner computer geek, might just be the key to getting your foot in the door.

If you want to listen to more stories from Harvest Public Media, visit their website at harvestpublicmedia.org

This story aired as part of Business Beat, KBIA's weekly look at business topics in Mid Missouri.