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Right-brained graduates in high demand

Right-brained graduates in high demand

The scales are tipping away from what it used to take for people to get ahead - logical, linear, left-brain, and spreadsheet-type abilities - in favor of abilities like artistry, empathy, and big-picture thinking, which are increasingly sought after.


You know something’s up when visionary, trend-setter and powerbroker, Oprah Winfrey, purchases 4500 copies of a single book. It’s a tall order - one copy for each student graduating in Stanford’s class of 2008. In a later interview, Oprah expressed her desire to prepare these graduates for the enormous challenges confronting graduates of Western universities. Among these challenges are the slipping significance of degrees, automation and outsourcing of traditional white-collar jobs and the increasing competition for rare and unique, ‘high touch’, right-brainers. The book? Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future.

“The future belongs to a different kind of person,” says Daniel Pink, former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and author of Free Agent Nation: The future of working for yourself. “Designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers - creative and empathetic right-brain thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.” Oprah’s gifting of Pink's book to graduates was a symbolic act - both a helping hand and a stern warning - do not expect the path ahead to be easy: you are not just competing with an over-supply of Western graduates, you are competing with the best and brightest, devastatingly cheaper minds in India, China, Russia and Indonesia.

So how to stay competitive? Pink claims we’re living in a different era, a different age. An age in which those who think at a higher level, offering location-dependent, ‘high touch’ services will be in greater demand than ever before.

Graduates a dime a dozen


Employers and career experts see a growing problem in American society - an abundance of college graduates. Heading into the work world with a degree under your arm simply doesn't cut it anymore.

Contrast this to 1973, when a bachelor’s degree was a rarity and just 47% of high school graduates went on to college. By October 2008, that number had risen to nearly 70%. And being in the top 70% isn't in the top at all. The statistics demonstrate the relationship between oversupply and graduate unemployment. In the United States, a record 10.6% of recent graduates are unemployed. On the upside, having a college degree makes you less likely to be unemployed - the unemployment rate for college graduates is still lower than that of the overall population.

Marty Nemko, a career education expert who has taught at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, contends this overflow of degree holders is the result of weaker students attending university when other options may have served them better. “There is tremendous pressure to push kids through,” he says, adding that, as a result, too many students who aren’t skilled become degree holders, promoting a perception among employers that higher education doesn’t work. “That piece of paper no longer means very much, and employers know that,” says Nemko. “Everybody’s got it, so it’s watered down.” 

The degree remains an asset, but it no longer guarantees employment. Creative types, right-brain thinkers, empathetic graduates who are able to connect with customers, blend creativity into product development, usability and marketing processes, simplify product complexity and boost morale are able to provide tangible value to employers. Until software is programmed to empathize with colleagues and customers, these right-brained thinkers' jobs are safe.

Oversupplied, outsourced and automated


Work that is routine or linear has the potential for offshoring or automation, wreaking havoc for many traditional employment paths. For example, a lot of programming and accounting jobs are moving offshore, running the risk of becoming blue-collar work.

According to Forrester Research, 1 in 9 jobs in the US information technology industry will move overseas by 2010. And it's not just tech work. As Pink notes in a Wired article, "Visit India's office parks and you'll see chartered accountants preparing American tax returns, lawyers researching American lawsuits, and radiologists reading CAT scans for US hospitals."

Accounting graduates, too, are imperiled by cheaper workers overseas, and by the ability to automate many accounting measures with software. Once these processes can be broken down into a set of commands, the job risks becoming obsolete. All of a sudden, accounting graduates are facing competition from fast, cheap, reliable and ubiquitous software.

Left-brain abilities that used to guarantee jobs are becoming easier to automate, while right-brain abilities are harder to find - “design, seeing the big picture, connecting the dots,” as Pink explains, are the abilities that develop new, marketable products and services. He cites cognitive skills and self-direction as the types of things companies look for in job candidates.

“People have to be able to do stuff that’s hard to outsource,” he says - and it isn't just affecting traditionally blue-collar work. “It used to be for blue collar; it’s now for white collar too.” Already, we are beginning to see packaged legal services provided online, such as or, online accounting software at and MYOB, and computer programming can be outsourced on and

The new wave of 'not-only-for-profit' companies

One of the hallmarks of Pink’s ‘conceptual economy’ is the outsourcing of traditional white-collar jobs such as law, accounting, and engineering to less-expensive overseas workers, particularly in Asia.  But, as Pink points out, you can’t outsource creativity. I would argue that smaller-scale elements of creativity can be outsourced, such as logo and web design, as demonstrated by the success of the ‘design outsourcing’ website, However, larger scale creative projects are much harder to outsource, for example, architecture, transportation logistics and workplace design.

Increasingly, consumer products are tapping into right-brain skills. You want to possess the kind of right-brain abilities that can’t be outsourced or automated, and that satisfy some of the nonmaterial needs of this abundant age.

As a result of consumers demanding more meaning, credibility and authenticity in products and services, we are witnessing the emergence of companies we might call ‘not-only-for-profit’. They’re profit driven, but that’s not their only driving force - they want to be about something beyond making their quarterly numbers and returning wealth to shareholders. For example, privately owned New York based software company Squarespace, has gone completely carbon neutral and is committed to redefining the online publishing experience. Creating not-only-for-profit companies that plug people’s individual talents into a larger purpose becomes very important, particularly for baby boomers.

Savvy graduates are design literate


Pink believes that “design has become a fundamental literacy in business, particularly for consultants”, arguing that a good consultant must be literate in design to offer useful advice, whether it’s for industrial design, graphic design, environmental design, or even fashion design.

Out of enlightened self-interest, Pink believes more companies are going to morph into not-only-for-profits. “And they’re going to need guidance to change from left-brained companies in the pursuit of making those quarterly numbers to companies that are more right-brained - companies that can attract talented, intrinsically motivated people.”

For example, a number of large consultancies are branching into consulting on workplace design, due to increasing demand for the productivity-enhancing potential of physical workplace design. Design thinking requires a very different sensibility than streamlining the supply chain or decreasing the number of steps in the procurement process. Workplace design is very hard to automate because it involves a physical presence, intuition, looking around, and getting a feel for things. These are the jobs and skill sets that savvy graduates will begin developing.

Hard-headed advice

It is no longer enough to have a degree, because routine jobs will continue to be oversupplied, exported and outsourced, leaving slim pickings for graduates in left-brain dominated fields.

The hard-headed career advice right now is to find what intrinsically motivates you. Autotelic workers, people motivated by the nature of their work, are likelier to tap greater artistry, empathy, creativity and big-picture thinking to provide increased value to employers. Hiring managers want people who are intrinsically motivated, because they know that employees doing what they love are good at what they do.


Design thinking, or being able to approach tasks from a design perspective, is a skill that lights up the eyes of hiring managers. For example, there is a distinct different between an accountant and a life planner (a growing trend), or a web developer to a user experience designer (a very well paid profession to be in right now).

For a designer, creativity comes naturally - it is part of their nature. According to Pink, there is “an increasing congruence between the talents that confer an advantage in labor markets and what people are intrinsically motivated to do.” Pink says it’s not just an idealistic notion, “I think it’s the best way to get ahead today. And that was not necessarily true in 1950”, he says. The best career move is to find what you love to do, what you’re great at, and pursue that. You will be more valuable in the workforce.

“I worry about the folks who pursue careers because their parents, teachers, or spouses give them outdated advice and they’re dutifully marching into careers they don’t really care about because they think it’s the way to make money. Not only is that bad for their individual self-actualization but I think it’s a bad career move, too.”

To get started right now, carry a notebook and write down examples of good and poor design. After a week, you’ll begin to realize that nearly everything is the product of a design decision. Then have a think about how you can begin applying this to the profession of your choosing. Ultimately, it’s about following your intrinsic motivation, and then approaching your service from a design perspective that creates value.

Looking to find your intrinsic motivators? The WorkLifeGroup Toolkit will help you explore your right-brained attributes, seek out areas for development and position your creative attributes.

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EARLY CAREER: Gen Y, Graduates and Early Careerists

Guy has worked as a business journalist, urban planner, slow food chef, denim salesperson and digital media manager, and shares original insights on diverse Gen Y career experiences.

Guy holds a B. Urban Planning & Development (Hons), has worked in 5 different industries and knows what its like to face the challenge of graduate transition. New career choices, personal branding and balancing passions with money are all part of the mix.

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