In a competitive job market, courses that build communication skills, decision-making prowess, and confidence may be the ticket to gainful employment
In today's competitive job market, graduates fresh out of college are looking to stand out. The earlier they start to give themselves an edge, the better off they will be, which is why more undergraduate business courses are starting to address softer skills—from improving communication to learning how to effectively use your creativity. Unique, hands-on courses that are part self-reflection, part theory, and part applied learning are best because they engage students and leave a lasting impression, say educators.
Recruiters say they are looking for people who have the technical skills but also display a certain level of maturity and flexibility and can communicate well. In addition, they are looking for some tangible experience. "Those who have had some work experience in the past are more successful employees," says Lisa Reckis, manager of College Relations at SanDisk (SNDK) a maker of flash memory products in Milpitas, Calif. If you can't land a job or internship before graduation, she suggests volunteering or working on research with a professor.
Some students can gain experience and have something to talk about in an interview simply by going to class. They just have to be smart about designing their class schedule. "Look for classes that are going to challenge you and provide you with a set of skills you're not necessarily comfortable with," says Terri Feldman Barr, who is teaching a pair of courses to undergraduate business students on the foundations of decision-making that has students reading, debating, and writing at the Farmer School of Business (Farmer Undergraduate Business Profile) at Miami University.
Sports fans might enjoy learning about teamwork and leadership in a course at Temple University's Fox School of Business and Management (Fox Undergraduate Business Profile) that is team-taught by Lynne Anderson, associate professor of business, society, and ethics, and basketball coach Fran Dunphy. The class, which is only for honors business students, takes field trips to Philadelphia stadiums to meet managers and teams. Kobe Bryant's high school coach, for example, spoke to students about nurturing great talent. Students also sit in on Temple basketball practices to observe and then write about the development of work groups.
One tangible skill that can set job candidates apart nowadays is being able to make a tough sale, and students in a sports marketing course at Seton Hall University's Stillman School of Business (Stillman Undergraduate Business Profile) are getting plenty of practice. On Mondays and Wednesdays at 10 a.m. ET—not exactly prime selling time—they work the phones, cold-calling potential spectators for the New Jersey Nets basketball team, which comes into class for a module on sales. Every class session, students sell a couple of tickets, says Larry McCarthy, associate professor of management. But the point is getting comfortable making a pitch. "The portal of entry in sports management is sales," says McCarthy. "If you can sell, you'll get the first job."
Knowing How to Think
Critical-thinking skills and creativity don't hurt, either. Undergraduates in Emory University's Goizueta Business School (Goizueta Undergraduate Business Profile) can enroll in the course "Ideation," which requires students to devise creative solutions to thorny business problems. "This is a course on thinking, which is not a core competency in American business," says Joey Reiman, adjunct professor and founder and CEO of BrightHouse.
The course has students identify companies that are not "soulful"—where there might be operational excellence but morale might be low and the focus is on efficiency or the bottom line alone. The students research the company's history and consult with experts—such as the child psychologist who explained the appeal of Goldfish crackers made by Pepperidge Farm (CPB)—and reflect on how it can move forward. Students have advised a number of companies, including Orkin, the pest control company. Reiman says companies have compared the students' work favorably to that of high-priced consulting firms. Surely, adds Reiman, recruiters will want employees who know how to think. "If you're not thinking, you're not thoughtful," he says. "If you're not thoughtful, you're thoughtless, and we've got a world of hurt."
Thinking about the soul of a company often has the added benefit of helping you think about your own—your values, passions, and goals. A communication course for business students at DePaul University (DePaul Undergraduate Business Profile) in Chicago addresses the usual—PowerPoint presentations and e-mail etiquette—but it also helps students learn how to better manage anxiety. There are discussions on breathing, meditation, and positive visualization techniques, as well as information about the effects of not getting enough sleep. Folks who think business people might pooh-pooh this sort of course are wrong. The business faculty voted to make it a required course. "Our students project a sense that 'I belong here,' " says Joel Whalen, associate professor and curriculum director for the Center for Sales Leadership at DePaul. "They have a quiet confidence and are cogent and well prepared."
Improv to Improve Communication
Gaining confidence is a part of the curriculum at University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business (Haas Undergraduate Business Profile), too. There, undergraduate business students can take an elective on improvisational theater to improve their communication and teamwork skills. In one of the first exercises of the course, students stand face-to-face with a partner and go back and forth with either rhyming words or words that start with a particular letter. The exercise forces students togive up the preconceptions they have about the other person and react to what their partner actually says. The course, which began in fall 2008, offers more valuable tools than mere communication, says lecturer Cort Worthington. "Improv trains people to be very present in the reality around them," says Worthington. "I don't know if that's sexy or mundane, but it's incredibly empowering."
Indeed, a person's mental health and how good they feel about their personal life will influence their job performance. That's why Susan Feinberg, associate professor of management and global business at Rutgers (Rutgers Undergraduate Business Profile), created the course "Love and Money," which helps business students learn to handle their personal finances, discuss money with their families and future spouses, and determine what kind of life they'd like to create for themselves both personally and professionally. "My aim is to give students the tools for a successful life and bring that success into their career," says Feinberg. Among the tasks students must complete is tracking how much they spend and save in a year, creating a feasible budget, and writing a life plan that demonstrates how they envision their life—including family, work, what their legacy will be—in the next five, 20, and 50 years.
Although these courses teach skills that will probably always please employers, they seem to have particular relevancy at this moment in time. Undergraduate business programs are well aware that softer skills might be more important than ever and could be the difference between getting the job and being unemployed. "The current environment shows us we failed in some sense," says Kathleen Getz, senior associate dean for Academic Affairs at American University's Kogod School of Business (Kogod Undergraduate Business Profile). "We recognize that, and we're trying very hard to accommodate the workplace."
Additional undergraduate business courses that provide marketable skills can be found in Getting In, BusinessWeek's b-schools blog.