Building Better Skill Sets

Time to move ahead beyond the status quo.

EMPLOYERS IN THE U.S. and U.K. say there’s a gap between how higher education prepares students for the workforce and how companies want individuals trained to be productive and valuable employees. This criticism has permeated the public discourse about education since the Great Recession.

Whether or not the rhetoric has been exaggerated, as some claim, the reality is that employers legitimately are experiencing a disconnect between the skills their employees need to be successful and the skills new college graduates possess. At the same time, today’s students must master the skills they’ll need not just for their first jobs, but for the jobs they’ll have five years from now. For instance, Ernst & Young hires college grads who have the foundational skills they’ll need to perform in the short run as well as the critical skills they’ll need to evolve along with the global economy.

If universities are doing a poor job of training students for the realities of the job market, it’s not because they lack the necessary expertise and resources. They’re failing in this task because they aren’t thinking creatively enough about how to share their expertise and resources across the entire campus.

I think we’ve arrived at the perfect time to reimagine the role of business schools. We can no longer be insulated and self-sufficient institutions where students simply learn the traditional functional disciplines. We have to broaden our ideas about what it means to be a well-prepared b-school graduate. We have to abandon the status quo.

WHO’S GETTING HIRED?

First, we need to understand the new realities of hiring and recruiting. While companies still want employees with deep subject matter expertise—the kind of graduates that universities excel at producing—they also want employees with a wider skill set. They want tech-savvy graduates who can think creatively, solve problems efficiently, and communicate effectively.

In fact, in the 2014 Job Outlook survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers ranked teamwork, communication, problem solving, and critical thinking as the most desirable skills and traits they look for in new hires—above the technical competencies required for the job. Employers across all industries also say they want new hires to possess at least some business acumen.

In other words, employers are looking for graduates with a broad array of skills, all of which are taught at universities, but rarely to the same students. I like to say that companies are looking for graduates at the new intersection where market innovators meet market leaders.

Where are companies finding graduates with these complex skill sets? Often, outside of the business school. Recruiters—even those in fields like finance and management—are actively looking at graduates from fields in the arts and sciences, which was virtually unheard of even a decade ago. That’s true even for companies like Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, and KPMG, the Big Four accounting firms that historically have hired accounting graduates who possessed deep technical knowledge. Today, as their client bases have broadened, the Big Four have become more interested in hiring employees with cross-disciplinary knowledge and skills that extend beyond accounting and basic business, and many of these employees majored in non-business fields.

WE WANT ALL OF OUR GRADUATES TO MEET OR EXCEED WHAT THE MARKET DEMANDS OF OUTSTANDING, WELL-ROUNDED EMPLOYEES. BUT WE CAN'T ACHIEVE THIS GOAL IF WE'RE CONTENT WITH THE STATUS QUO.

But this change doesn’t necessarily mean that business schools, or our students, are at a disadvantage. What it does mean is that business schools must realize that what worked in the past isn’t good enough now. They have to abandon the status quo. They have to search for opportunities to collaborate with colleges across campus so they can turn out the types of graduates businesses want.

HOW CAN WE PREPARE STUDENTS?

We can broaden our students’ experiences in several ways—for instance, by encouraging them to minor in other programs, take general education courses, and join business-oriented organizations on campus. We also can work with the wider university to offer business-focused study abroad opportunities, as well as global internships. These options allow our students to complement their current studies without requiring us to significantly redesign our programs.

But if we really want students to master critical skills, I think we must restructure our programs in three key ways:

We must give students a chance to apply their skills in real-life situations. One way we accomplish this at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio, is through StartUp Weekend. Over a 48-hour period, students from across the university form teams, work with mentors, create business plans, and pitch their ideas. The weekend experience exposes them to entrepreneurial skills and lets them apply those skills across a variety of industry sectors.

We must develop collaborative degree programs with other schools on campus. In these programs, business students learn broader skill sets, such as leading teams, solving problems, and communicating; and nonbusiness students gain knowledge that will make their degrees more relevant in today’s market.

At Miami University, several programs housed at the College of Creative Arts weave business courses into other, more artistic majors. These programs include fashion design, arts management, interactive media studies, and Miami Design Collaborative, which is a multidisciplinary design initiative that combines faculty and students from across the entire campus.

In the interactive media studies program, for example, students take hybrid classes such as digital branding and interactive business communication. In the arts management program, students who are coming from an arts background must take courses such as financial accounting or entrepreneurial marketing, whereas students coming from the business side must take more art-focused classes. Additionally, students meet with advisors from both schools.

Other hybrid offerings include the sports leadership and management program, which features courses in sports finance and economics in addition to traditional courses in kinesiology, health, and business. These bridges between the Farmer School and other schools within the university offer students more flexibility, as well as a chance to expand their skills and knowledge, which will improve their career opportunities down the road.

We must offer business courses to nonbusiness students. These programs encourage stronger connections between business schools and the rest of the university, in addition to helping graduates develop more marketable skills. For instance, we give nonbusiness students a foundation in business topics through our six-week summer business institute, Miami PRIME.

We want all of our graduates, regardless of their programs of study, to meet—or even exceed—what the market demands of outstanding, well-rounded employees. But we can’t achieve this goal if we’re content with the status quo. We can’t simply teach functional disciplines in silo-based courses. We have to innovate our own programs if we’re going to turn out students who can innovate in the real world.

Matthew Myers is dean of the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.