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Arts grads happily employed - or are they?

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Visual communications major Lynn Watson reports shes happy with her job.

Just a few days ago, I was reading about the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) survey from the IU Center for Postsecondary Research while surfing the Internet at the Carmel Clay Public Library. The press release for this study stated that “contrary to popular belief most arts graduates are employed and holding jobs consistent with their educational goals.”

Out of 13,581 alumni surveyed from 154 arts high schools, arts colleges, college arts departments, seventy-four percent of those who wished to work as arts professionals had done so since graduating, according to the SNAAP survey. There are many other statistical breakdowns in this survey, but the gist of it is this: many former art students — more than you might think — are currently happy (very satisfied, in the language of the survey) with their opportunities to be creative at work, happy with their opportunities to find meaningful work, and happy with how their arts education prepared them for this work.

I wondered whether there was a happily employed arts professional on hand at the Carmel Clay Public Library (CCPL) with whom I could talk to put a human face on the statistics in this survey. So I went to the librarian at the nearest information desk and soon enough I was talking with Lynn Watson, CCPL’s Graphic Design Specialist.

Watson, who has an associate’s degree in visual communications and will soon graduate from IUPUI with a bachelor’s degree in new media, designs the printed brochures and booklets printed by the library.

“Layout design’s mainly what I learned for my visual communications degree,” she told me. “Now I’m learning the technical part. My new degree will be web-based interactive web design.”

I asked her if she was surprised in any way by the results of the survey when I summed them up for her.

“No. I would say it’s not a surprise because I’m very happy with what I do,” she said. “I feel that I get enough challenges every day to keep things interesting.”

When I probed further I found that Watson’s position at the library is a fulltime one with benefits. That is, Watson is not only happily employed but gainfully employed.

The SNAAP Survey, at least at first glance, didn’t seem to really touch upon the gainfully part of all these art majors’ careers — a part I can’t help but be curious about having worked retail on and off for the past 15 years.

I contacted Steven Jay Tepper, the SNAAP Survey Senior Scholar, and I asked him point blank about the gainfully-employed aspect.

“These are our hot-off-the-press initial findings,” Tepper said in a phone interview. “We didn’t dig very deeply into income or exactly how people’s work was being apportioned between different jobs or part-time/fulltime.”

Tepper said the question of whether art school graduates were gainfully employed would be addressed in forthcoming studies.

“We’re going to be doing analysis on this data set for years,” he added. “And there will be a huge national report done in about two years that digs very deeply. So these are preliminary findings suggest sort of counterintuitive results. Most people who graduated were very satisfied with their education. It’s not like there’s all these embittered graduates who don’t know why they went to arts school. Most of them say they’d do it again if given the choice. They’d go to the same institution. Even those who aren’t working in the arts say they would go back to arts school if given the choice. And the levels of job satisfaction are pretty high.

“The only major disadvantage that arts graduates have is that artists take generally about a ten to fifteen percent cut in salary compared to other professionals,” Tepper continued. “We know this from other surveys. But my sense is that they probably make up for this in career satisfaction.”

After we talked, Tepper e-mailed the entirety of the SNAAP survey and I did find one intriguing statistic that did have something to do with the issue of gainful employment. Only a small percentage of arts professionals (the average across various categories of arts specializations) were satisfied with their current level of income, a statistic that seemed in keeping with what Tepper said about arts professionals’ incomes compared to other professionals, while a much larger percent of these same professionals felt that they were able to do work that reflected their interests and values.

But arts graduates might find it necessary to have some additional quality in addition to pure artistic abilities to find both meaningful and gainful employment if the example of Lynn Watson, the Carmel Clay Public library graphic designer, means anything.

Remember that Watson is currently enrolled at IUPUI finishing up her bachelor’s in New Media, even as she works a full-time job.

“I really needed the computer skills to go forward,” said Watson, who earned her associate’s degree in visual communications over a number of years while raising children.

What Watson seemed to possess, in addition to her skill as a graphic designer, is a certain stick-with-it-ness.

“It’s what you do with your skill and how you adapt,” she said.

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