Searching for the Soft Skills 'Sweet Spot'

Business researchers take a closer look at the soft skills unique to each specific industry.
Searching for the Soft Skills ‘Sweet Spot’

HOW CAN BUSINESS GRADUATES stand out from the crowd as they try to land their first jobs? Find the “sweet spot” between the skills employers want most and those graduates exhibit least, say Kiersten M. Maryott and Ronald Magnuson, both clinical assistant professors of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Maryott and Magnuson, in collaboration with undergraduate business student Kaylee Philbrick, sought to more clearly define the gap between the skills graduates have and the skills recruiters seek. However, as they reviewed existing research and available data, they discovered that very little information existed to help them identify the exact competencies that fell into that gap.

To fill in that blank, the team decided to identify competencies related to six business disciplines: accounting, business information systems, finance, human resource management, marketing, and supply chain management. They wanted to focus only on hard skills specific to each discipline, rather than on more generic soft skills such as communication or critical thinking.

They first surveyed faculty in each discipline, analyzed entry-level job postings, and held a focus group with eight human resource and career services professionals to discover competencies required for each discipline. Next, they distributed a list of these competencies to a larger group of human resource professionals and career services advisors. They asked these individuals to rate each competency from a 3 (“definitely include/very important”) to a 1 (“do not include/not expected” of an entry-level job candidate).

Using this information, the team identified a number of hard skills rated as “very important” for each discipline. In supply chain management, for instance, employers are looking for people who understand lean operations and can operate in rapidly changing environments, with less emphasis on following structured methodologies. In human resource management, employers are looking for candidates who can maintain confidentiality and understand current employment law, with less emphasis on an ability to manage change. Data analytics ranked as a “very important” skill for those in accounting, business information systems, finance, and supply chain management.

Now that the researchers have identified these competencies, they are conducting further studies to achieve their original goal: identifying the gap between skills employers want and skills graduates possess. “During the second stage of this research,” they write, “we intend to identify, from the perspective of employers/managers, where the gaps are in student performance on these discipline-specific competencies.”

The authors presented “Using Experience-Based Learning to Enhance Student Success: Step 1—Exploratory Research to Identify Discipline-Specific Competencies” at the Association for Business Simulation and Experiential Learning conference in March. Read the study.