What Employers Want, What We Teach

The University of Tampa’s Frank Ghannadian analyzes how well business programs turn out the graduates businesses say they want.
What Employers Want, What We Teach

As employers in Europe and the U.S. try to navigate the troubled global economy, they hope to hire new business graduates who can hit the ground running without requiring periods of long training. Are business schools providing them with the employees they want?

Some critics say no. A famous 2005 Harvard Business Review article by Warren Bennis and James O’Toole claimed that MBA programs didn’t instill useful skills in students, failed to prepare leaders, and didn’t teach the norms of ethical behavior. Similar points were made in the 2010 book Rethinking the MBA, written by Srikant Datar, Patrick Cullen, and David Garvin. The authors claimed that business schools’ excessive emphasis on quantitative and theoretical analysis had created academic wizards of numbers rather than leaders of business.

And yet, corporate employers continue to hire our graduates at a steady rate, even during tough economic times, which suggests that by and large business schools are indeed designing coursework that prepares students for the corporate world. Over the past 30 years, as employers have called for graduates with better leadership skills, stronger writing skills, and a deeper understanding of ethical issues, business schools have responded with core courses on those topics.

But does that mean that we can ignore the critics? Not at all. Our work on the business curriculum isn’t done. We can be certain that the years to come will present program necessities that we can only guess at now. Business will grow more complex, corporations will require new hires with new skills, and business schools will have to adapt once again. Therefore, curriculum change must be constant if business schools are to align their curricula with the needs of business.

One way to prepare for that future is to engage in a continuing dialogue with industry. This article explores several studies of what employers are looking for today, as well as my own analysis of how well top schools have answered these employers’ demands. Business school administrators can study the gap between the two to evaluate how they can make their own programs even stronger and more relevant.

DOING WELL, COULD DO BETTER

To see how well academia is serving industry, we should compare what corporate leaders say they want from business school graduates to what business schools actually teach in their programs.

Over the past ten or 15 years, dozens of studies have indicated that employers desire employees with excellent communication abilities, strong critical thinking skills, and sensitivity to gender and cross-cultural issues. For instance, for a 2010 article in Business Education & Accreditation, Diane Holtzman and Ellen Kraft surveyed employers to determine what skills they believed graduates needed before starting a job.

The answers were stronger writing, computing, and quantitative analysis skills.

Schools have done a good job of responding to employers' needs, but they have to make up ground in some areas.

A 1993 article in Human Resource Development Quarterly surveyed employers to determine what they’re looking for in graduates. Authors Leslie Davison, James Brown, and Mark Davison found that employers want workers who can analyze management situations and recommend solutions; who possess interpersonal and oral communication skills; who have job experience; who are punctual, dependable, honest, and ethical; and who are professionally groomed.

By studying these and other pieces of research, I was able to identify 25 important skills that employers have said they prize in new hires. To see how well business schools are training students in those skills, I reviewed a selection of undergraduate and graduate programs. For simplicity’s sake, I chose the top 25 undergraduate and MBA business schools according to the 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek ranking.

Taken together, these tables show that schools have done a good job of responding to the most important needs that employers have identified, such as leadership and ethics. But they might have to make up some ground in other areas that employers consider important, even if they’re not in the top ten.

That point is made abundantly clear in a study conducted by Fred David and Forest David forthcoming in Business Horizons. The authors collected 200 corporate job descriptions and identified 140 specific skills that employers say they’re looking for; then they reviewed 200 résumés of business students who were near graduation. They found little overlap between the skills employers valued and skills the students possessed, particularly when it came to practical know-how.

Finding this problematic, the authors reviewed more than 100 business school syllabi, hoping to find ways to close the gap. In their report, they present a series of recommendations, most of them focused on bringing real-world issues into the classroom. For instance, they encourage business schools to offer more internships, add experiential classes to simulate work situations, revise courses to prepare students for license exams and certifications, and hire faculty with more business experience. They also urge schools to reward practitioner-based research and faculty consulting work, to the extent of weighing both types of work in the tenure and promotion process. Finally, they advocate for journals to consider “applications of research” when they accept articles for publication.

COMMITTING TO CONSTANT CHANGE

While curriculum change is essential, it’s often slow, due to bureaucratic university structures, which can cause a lag between what businesses want and what business schools supply. This lag will continue as advances in science and changes in society create new challenges in the business world.

But business schools must counteract that tendency. Such studies as the ones I’ve mentioned here show that business schools have room for improvement, particularly in the areas of soft skills and hands-on experience. They must realize that employers will begin calling for new skills as the business world grows more global, interconnected, and technologically sophisticated. They must seek out advisory board members who can advise them about key business trends that they will need to address as they continually revamp their programs. Schools must view curriculum revision as constant—it’s a task that is never done.

Despite the fact that we have work ahead of us, I believe that, overall, we’re doing a good job. Figures from AACSB International show that there are more than 13,000 business schools around the globe, and that number continues to grow, due to high demand for business graduates. To me, that indicates that business schools are, to a large extent, providing what employers want.

It seems to me the core curriculum is the main course of the business school meal. The refinements—new electives, new majors, and expanded course content—are the side dishes and desserts. We’re tinkering with the buffet, but we’ve already got most of the options prepared, and many of them have been made to order.

F. Frank Ghannadian is dean of the John H. Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa in Florida. This study was originally conducted for a presentation given at the 2011 Dean’s Conference hosted by AACSB International.