What Do Employers Want From Business Schools?
When crafting their programs and curricula, business schools have two primary customers in mind: prospective students and employers.
But often, it’s the needs of employers—inexorably linked to the ambitions of students—that drive how business schools innovate and change. When I asked Keith Bevans, global head of consulting recruitment at Bain & Company, “What do you want to see more from business schools?” he replied, “That’s exactly what business schools ask us.”
Despite challenges U.S. business schools faced in recruiting new students last year, many schools have posted record employment rates for their graduates. Clearly, efforts to prepare students for the workforce are paying off. But how exactly is today’s workforce characterized, and how can schools continue to meet industry needs?
Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business—where a record 28 percent of MBAs landed jobs in the technology industry in 2018—measures the global business environment with a survey of CFOs conducted each quarter. In the first quarter of 2018, 45 percent of CFOs in the U.S. gave the ability to hire and retain talent as one of their top-four concerns. By the third quarter, that figure jumped to 53 percent, an all-time high.
Business schools should be encouraged by the clear demand for talent. But what kind of talent employers are looking for is constantly shifting. More than talent alone, the need to innovate, build close ties, and extend collaborations with employers should be ingrained in the strategy of every business school.
According to the Financial Times, the ability to influence, strategic thinking, drive and resilience, and problem solving are the most difficult-to-recruit skills for employers today. Employers say soft skills like teamwork, networking, and time management are among the most important.
Technological change is disrupting industries, with historic companies like Walmart, competing with Amazon, and General Motors, with its drive toward zero emissions and autonomous vehicles, reinventing themselves as tech companies. But, more than knowing about the technology itself, employers expect candidates to have the soft skills to deal with the pace of technological change.
Bain & Company has its own internal training programs when it comes to upskilling in blockchain or big data, for example. More than technical knowledge, Bain wants its consultant hires to be comfortable making mistakes and rapidly recovering from them.
That agility is crucial in a rapidly changing work environment where the focus of employers has shifted from considering a candidate’s IQ—“Are they the cleverest person in the room?”—to EQ, or emotional intelligence, and now to DQ, decency quotient, a term coined by Duke Fuqua dean Bill Boulding.
DQ is about treating others with respect and compassion, listening, and working with a common purpose—and marks a shift in employer preferences that prompted Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business to emphasize being “nice” as one of its key new MBA admissions evaluation criteria in 2018.
At the same time, there is demand for technical skills across organizations. According to Deloitte, less than half of U.K. executives are confident in their own digital skills, and just 16 percent believe their talent pool has enough knowledge to deliver their digital strategy.
In this climate, specialized master’s programs—on topics like data analytics and artificial intelligence—have become a huge source of interest for many employers. For Bevans, the MBA will always be a very important part of the talent pipeline, but increasingly important are people who have expertise in analytics and digital innovation.
Employers want business schools to innovate to respond to their needs. In the U.S., business schools offering specialized master’s degrees can apply for STEM designation, which helps employers hire their international students more easily.
Students pursuing a STEM-designated master’s can apply for a 24-month STEM extension to their Optional Practice Training (OPT) period, which allows them to work on a student visa, so they can work in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation without an H1B visa sponsor. While mostly a master’s phenomenon, a few MBA programs with specialized technical tracks have innovated to achieve STEM designation.
While employers value innovation by business schools, technological change doesn’t mean students need to learn with virtual reality headsets on. More important is that students are taught in a way that reflects the real-world working environment, where employees communicate online, globally, and across time zones. In November 2018, six schools joined to form the Future of Management Education Alliance, with a vision that online learning should have the same transformational impact as face-to-face courses, with these workplace attributes in mind.
When Vlerick Business School in Belgium launched its Online MBA in December 2017, it was in response to feedback from local employers who wanted more flexible training opportunities for their employees. Steve Muylle, the program’s academic director, says that 40 percent of students in the 2017 cohort are sponsored by their companies.
Business schools and employers get the best results when they collaborate. In December 2018, Cranfield School of Management in England launched a new executive Master of Science in management and leadership in partnership with Grant Thornton, the professional services network, which offers the course to its 2,500-plus partner firms. Cranfield’s EMBA, launched with Grant Thornton in 2017, has already attracted 388 learners sponsored by 185 organizations.
In the executive space, business schools increasingly need to custom-build executive courses with, and for, specific employers to increase their share of a market in which—according to research from CarringtonCrisp—fewer than one-third of organizations use schools to train their employees, preferring internal programs and online providers instead.
MIP Politecnico di Milano, which offers customized courses through its MIP Corporate Relations division, implements an employer-first approach at all levels. MIP’s full-time MBA was created in partnership with companies including BCG, IBM, and Microsoft. Across the school, partner companies sponsor students, run networking events, offer mentorship, project work, and placement opportunities, while gaining access and exposure to talent.
At Surrey Business School in the U.K., Paul Schoonenberg is leading an initiative to embed “employability” into the school’s programs through specific skills seminars addressing internship search strategies, thinking globally, presentation skills, and through group work and selected employer engagement. The school has also introduced postgraduate internships for the first time.
Employers want to collaborate directly with students whether it’s through competitions—like IBM’s Case Competition with Georgetown’s MBA Tech Club—or social impact projects—like Temple’s Fox Board Fellows, which places MBA students on the boards of local nonprofits. At Bain, Bevans says up to four partners teach classes at business schools at any given time—a chance to connect with students and be part of the whole business school experience.
Ultimately, it’s easy for business schools to get distracted by digital innovation. Schools need to remember that, today, anyone can go online and learn about business at the click of a mouse. What business schools offer is the experience—the environment for networking, self-reflection, and teamwork. And that’s what employers value the most.
Marco De Novellis is the editor of BusinessBecause, an online publisher dedicated to graduate management education, and is the creator and host of the podcast, The Business School Question. Follow him on Twitter @marcodn_bb.