One of the most telling gaps in higher education is the one between the 96 percent of college provosts who, according to a 2014 Inside Higher Ed survey, claim they're adequately preparing students for the job market and the mere 11 percent of business leaders who, based on a 2013 Gallup poll, feel college graduates have the knowledge and business skills needed to succeed in the workplace.
Given that business continues to be the number one major in the US according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), this gap between educators and employers is particularly surprising. But a closer examination of the specific business skills employers are looking for reveal them to actually be a set of meta skills that can be learned in any classroom (or online), but usually have to be honed in the context of real-world work.
Business technology skills
- Microsoft Office: While Macintosh and Google Apps may dominate the classroom, Microsoft Windows and Office are still the platforms of choice for businesses. So take the time to master them.
- Advanced applications: Typing letters in Microsoft Word or creating simple tables in Excel is clerical work. Professionals should be able to use advanced features of those applications to create long documents and attractive reports, or analyze data using statistical functions and pivot tables without assistance.
- Systems/IT: There is a whole certification-based career track for IT professionals. But knowing enough about computer hardware, software and networks to solve your own technical problems (or, better yet, help your co-workers solve theirs) can make you an invaluable part of a team.
- Statistics: Big data is only getting bigger. While software is automating some of the reams of number crunching of big data, there still need to be people who can draw meaningful business inferences from the numbers. What that means is a grasp of the fundamentals of statistics is growing in importance across an ever-broader range of jobs.
Learning business tech skills
With the IT and tech field continuing to grow at a fast pace, there are several options available for individuals who're interested in brushing up on technology skills. Online course providers like Coursera offer one-off introductory courses in subjects like HTML and statistics, which can be useful for pros who're already in the workforce. Students or prospective students who want to pursue a business path with a heavy tech focus can look into degrees in information technology.
Business and professional communication skills
- Verbal communications: How well do you come off on the phone, in a meeting, or in front of an audience? If you've not honed those skills while in school, start working on them before your first round of interviews.
- Written communications: If you got through college without writing a paper, you're pretty much screwed in today's information-based business world where everyone on the company org chart is judged by his or her ability to write succinct and clear emails, and getting anything done requires generating detailed but easy-to-follow proposals and reports. So if you're not at least a decent writer yet, become one.
- Informal communications: Are you the type of person who lets emails go unanswered or who sometimes misjudges what's appropriate to say in a text or phone call? If so, make sure to break those bad habits before you enter the workplace where people are judged by their responsiveness and decorum.
- Persuasive communications: Sales is all about persuasion, but even those not in the sales part of an organization need to convince customers, partners or fellow employees to do things all the time. So consider time invested into sales training time well spent.
- Teamwork: This tops the list of skills employers are looking for, and the ability to lead, follow and work within teams are skills you are just as likely to learn outside a classroom (in a club, sport, or other extracurricular) than in one.
Learning communication skills
There are a variety of courses and programs that could be applied to business communication, presentation and writing. For people who want to specialize in this field, there are dedicated degrees in communications, which can have application in several business operations including public relations, corporate training and management.
Critical thinking skills
- Organizing and prioritizing work: Assume any workplace you enter will quickly overwhelm you (and your co-workers) with competing priorities. Which means the skills you (presumably) developed scheduling, organizing and prioritizing work in school take on new urgency in today's business environment.
- Problem solving: Every challenge you will face at work (and in life) is a problem to be solved. Can you articulate that problem in a way that lays out the steps needed to solve it?
- Research/information gathering: The data you need to solve that problem you've been assigned is available. But do you know how to get at it? And can you sort quality information from useless dreck? The skill you should enter the workforce with is called Information Literacy.
- Quantitative analysis: Remember statistics and programming? Well those skills need to be applied whenever you are analyzing numerical data for trends or buried revelations.
- Decision making: Once a problem is identified and articulated, and data gathered and analyzed, someone (probably you) will need to make a decision. So how ready are you to pull the trigger and defend your choice?
Learning critical thinking skills
The ability to think critically shows up as a bullet point on many a business job posting, to the point of becoming a cliché. It's not just padding, however. As the list above illustrates, critical thinking skills can be the underpinning for every significant business decision made at an organization.
There's various ways to pick up critical thinking. Courses like business management typically touch on aspects of quantitative analysis and research when covering techniques like scenario planning. Additionally, critical thinking techniques tend to be a significant element of programs in the liberal arts and humanities. For a business-minded student a major in liberal arts could be accompanied with a minor in business, or vice versa.
These business skills are linked, and not all of them can be learned from a textbook. But mixing the right classroom and independent study with real world experience that puts these skills to work represents the best form of preparation for your first job - and every job after that.
If you want to find out more about courses that could help you brush up on your basic business skills, check out the listings below or use the search tool on the right to get matched to a school that fits your specific needs.
"Fast Facts," National Center for Education Statistics, September 23, 2014, http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=37
"Ready or Not (Provosts, business leaders disagree on graduates' career readiness)," Inside Higher Education, February 26, 2014, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/02/26/provosts-business-leaders-disagree-graduates-career-readiness
"The 10 Skills Employers Most Want in 20-Something Employees," Forbes, October 11, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2013/10/11/the-10-skills-employers-most-want-in-20-something-employees/
Information Literacy Resources," Association of College and Research Libraries, http://www.ala.org/acrl/issues/infolit