The English Degree is No Longer Superfluous: Online Jobs and Social Change

Writer Alexa Russell got me thinking about the PRACTICAL value of an English degree in today’s online work environment. More than ever, she says, students are able to put their degrees to work remotely in order to spur social change and communicate internationally. Check out her noteworthy article below, and you may think twice about writing majors! Enjoy:

There has perhaps never been a better time to be proficient in written English. English is undisputedly the primary language of the Internet, and is increasingly required for international business, as well as most jobs in the telecommunications and IT support sectors. Though for much of the world it serves as a second, third, or even fourth language, its ubiquity makes it something of a gold standard. Employers around the world put value on employees with demonstrable English language skills. College students pursuing the English major—long seen as being something of an easy course of study—may find their vindication as more and more jobs give preference to those with literature or composition degrees. A robust knowledge of English is also increasingly important to international social change movements, from social networking campaigns to grassroots efforts over Twitter and text messaging.

One of the main reasons both native and non-native English speakers pursue English degrees is to tailor their understanding of the language, and hone in on the elements of it needed to find success in a global marketplace. “The current shortage of talent with the aptitude to speak, write, present, sell and service customers in English has become a high performance dilemma for individual companies, and even countries,” Mahesh Ram, CEO of the Global English Corporation, told Forbes in an April 2012 article.

Global English is a think tank focused on the use of English in businesses throughout the world. It recently released survey data showing that international companies are a full 7 percent worse at communicating in English today than they were ten years ago. Against this backdrop, an English degree can be remarkably attractive in the right setting.

Online and web-based jobs utilizing English come in many shapes and forms. Many resemble standard office jobs, except that they are done at home from virtually any location. These include writing corporate blog posts, managing and answering executives’ e-mail communications, and managing official Twitter feeds. Many of these jobs can be done remotely, often from any Internet connection. Today’s workforce is truly more global than ever, as employees who might once have shared an office or seen each other in the elevator may now populate different continents and hemispheres.

Enterprising English grads may also be able to find interesting and profitable work as web copywriters, creating and editing articles for a variety of websites. In many cases, this sort of work can be tailored to individual interests: sites for disciplines as diverse as gardening, medical knowledge, and math skills all need writers to craft engaging content. Sites geared to English-speaking audiences of course need content in English, but the same is also usually true for international sites. Because English is so well-known, many web hosts want content in this language in order to reach the widest possible readership.

Increasingly, English majors—particularly those from international backgrounds or with global aspirations—find a language-based degree program useful for social justice work, too. English-language tweets sent by Iranian protesters in the election uprising of 2011 were one of the main reasons that the event, known now as the “Arab Spring,” drew the sort of international audience it did. The United States was one of the major players in that conflict, both in terms of diplomacy and media coverage. Knowing English and understanding how to effectively communicate in that tongue helped activists of all nationalities publicize and shed light on the conflict.

The effects of English social media use are widespread. “In the past couple of years, social media have played a significant role in breaking news on sensitive topics, including official corruption and civil unrest,” a National Public Radio article on the rise of Twitter use in China reported. China’s government has long been criticized for being secretive, authoritarian, and censoring. Posting messages and descriptions of government action in Chinese can be effective, but a wider audience can often be reached by using English. Those with English proficiency, both in and outside of China, can dramatically help leverage the use of new resources to shed light on injustices, and hopefully bring about change.

Social media can also be indispensable when it comes to public health. Those interested in spreading the word about HIV/AIDS prevention, crisis response, or basic health care for impoverished communities may find that English-based social network messages are the most effective means of communication. The World Health Organization, a Switzerland-based non-profit, has been utilizing social media now for several years with overwhelmingly positive results.

“News is breaking on Twitter. Citizen journalism is becoming as valuable as paid journalism. Clicktivism is a new way of campaigning for many causes. Social media has become a new bridge that connects people,” Sari Setiogi, a WHO social media officer, said in an article about Twitter and Facebook use on the WHO website. “WHO talks to a broad range of people on our social media channels: Everyone from a ministry of health official to the parents of a premature baby.” A firm grasp of English is absolutely essential for this job, for although the WHO is an international organization, English is, predictably, its main operating language.

Investing in an English degree in today’s Internet-driven world is not nearly as risky as it may have been decades ago. No longer are English majors limited to jobs in publishing or teaching. Many of the most cutting-edge jobs with the biggest possibilities for positive change are based on the ability to communicate clearly and effectively. Majoring in English can be an excellent way to get a foothold in one or more of these up-and-coming sectors.

Alexa Russell is a freelance writer from the Northwest and currently considering graduate school at UC Berkeley where she wants to study English and communications. She is also a writer for where you can check out more of her writing.