Why big business is hiring arts graduates: Bede Noonan, CEO

There’s a lingering stigma around studying the arts. In a world where the job market is becoming increasingly competitive – where more and more candidates are expected to have masters degrees, and secondary school students are already thinking about job security when they consider their university options – there’s a belief among some that studying ‘just’ a Bachelor of Arts could leave you high and dry.

Bede Noonan, CEO and Managing Director of major engineering company ACCIONA Geotech, disagrees – and being both an arts graduate himself and an employer of arts graduates, his opinion is informed.

Having enjoyed humanities study at school (French and economics in particular) and with an interest in business, at the age of 18 Noonan was debating which to study at university. Arts won out.

“There was – and still is – a bit of stigma about doing an arts degree, but I wasn’t worried about that. I didn’t have any grand vision for what I wanted to do or be long term”, he says.

But it’s Noonan’s belief that his arts degree was instrumental in broadening his mind at a critical age. “An arts degree helps you evolve your mind, makes you a better thinker and a better listener. It helps you develop into a person with broader ideas who can actually prosecute those ideas”, he argues. “It’s easy to sit back and consider something from a very narrow lens, in whatever position you might be or whatever prejudice you might come from. It’s harder to think more broadly, and I think an arts degree – certainly my arts degree – was a great enabler of that.”

Now an employer of around 1500 people, Noonan believes that in the workforce the value of your degree is not just the knowledge you’ve gained from it, but the skills and perspectives you’ve acquired through the process of study.

“Your first job is always your hardest, but I think good businesses more and more don’t mind what your background is – short of needing specific skills, like for law or medicine”, he qualifies. “But getting into the more general workforce, it’s my opinion that it’s largely irrelevant what your degree is after you’re a few years out of uni.”

What is relevant, he argues, is how you learn, how you adapt and the “soft skills” you can bring to your work.

A valuable toolkit

So how did Noonan get the start that would put him on the road to leading the Australian and New Zealand portfolio of a global renewable energy and infrastructure company?

After a couple of years travelling post-degree, Noonan returned to Australia in need of a job. He approached the owner of the kerbside recycling company he used to work for when he was a student, collecting recycling. (“It was good being a young footballer, and running around the suburbs picking up recycling and getting fit”, he jokes.)

The owner, who was also the President of the Recyclers’ Association, was going through a challenging time. A large part of his business involved collecting empty beer bottles to be returned to Carlton United Breweries for reuse; but because of concerns about contaminants, CUB decided they would no longer accept recycled bottles, meaning that the recycling companies had to sell crushed glass for a fraction of the price instead.

With the company – and many others like it – facing enormous losses, Noonan went to his former boss and said, “I think you need someone to help you run your business”.

With Noonan’s help, the company banded together with other recycling businesses and spent months lobbying local councils and state government, attending countless meetings and engaging in negotiations.

“You might say we achieved nothing,” he laughs, “because they didn’t help us out. But at the end of the day, every business coped. Not one company went broke. It was a really good opportunity for my first job – and while I know the owner wasn’t looking for an arts graduate, it was the soft skills I’d developed in my studies which allowed me to help with this side of the business during a difficult time.”

Looking ahead

Almost 30 years on, Noonan hasn’t forgotten his roots. ACCIONA certainly hires a lot of engineers, but those with arts backgrounds also feature in its ranks.

“A business like ours has more and more opportunities for arts graduates. In general, our engineers are not great at being able to express themselves, especially from the point of view of writing about their projects for both internal and external audiences – so our communications and marketing staff are really important”, he explains. “They’re also critical to the success of our bids. Every single tender that we do involves a tremendous amount of writing to convince the client we're the company to choose to do the work.”

Noonan also emphasises the fact that the world is perpetually changing. Advances in technology mean that 10 years from now – or even five – jobs we can’t even imagine will exist. It’s creative people, he argues, that will be best placed to fill them.

“I strongly believe that that is the right way, the future. I think, especially in the world as it currently is, success is more likely to come about by people who are good at engaging with other people, people who are good at listening and understanding what's going on in a particular issue. People that can ask, ‘What's the problem, where do we want to get to?’ and then help translate that to other people to help build the tools to get us there.”

So his advice to arts students just beginning on their journey is to be patient.

“When people talk about arts degrees, you know, there's that perception that, specifically in your first year, the hard part's to get the job. It's so much easier if you've done an accounting degree, or law, or engineering. But be a little bit patient, because the world is ever-changing. Your ability to get a job, whatever it might be, can quickly lead to other things. If you're optimistic and you're a thinker, you can make things happen. The world is your oyster.”

The future is, of course, a great unknown. But good listeners, capable leaders and broad thinkers will probably have a head start.