Technical Skills Not Enough for Today’s Business Grads

What will make graduates of collegiate business schools better prepared to enter the 21st century workforce?


I have asked this question hundreds of times since 2007. Most recently, since becoming Dean of Jones College of Business at Middle Tennessee State University in July 2013, I have participated with my Development Director Tom Keith in over 440 individual meetings, group discussions, and speaking engagements with business, community, and government leaders in Tennessee and other states.


The responses I have received to my question about workforce preparation have been amazingly consistent. I have interviewed people who occupy a wide range of professional fields, from manufacturing to nonprofit services. In those hundreds of discussions, occasionally someone will say that students need better quantitative or technological skills, but those responses are aberrations.


What these business, government, and community leaders almost universally say is that today’s business graduates need more than technical knowledge. They require a wide array of parallel abilities, often referred to as “soft skills,” to complement their technical competencies. Examples of these soft skills include the ability to write and speak effectively; to think through a problem to a solution; to work in teams; to build and maintain personal relationships; to practice the art and science of effective networking; and to maintain a positive attitude toward life and work. These leaders have also emphasized the critical importance of polished social skills and etiquette.


Another conclusion I have drawn from these conversations is especially noteworthy in this era of e-mails, text messages, tweets, and blog posts. As efficient as electronic communication is, there is simply no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Even in the 21st century, business is still about people. A person might have the manual dexterity to transmit text via a smartphone within a few seconds to anyone on the planet. But if that person expects to be successful in business, success is all about relationships with customers, clients, and colleagues. So our business graduates had better be able to humanize their dealings with others and move beyond superficial connections.


At MTSU’s Jones College of Business, our new strategic plan will ensure that we continue to have solid technical business training for all of our students, in accordance with our international accreditation. But our main focus over the next few years will be a major professional development initiative, to provide students with the soft skills needed in today’s business environment.  Our first main thrust in this regard has just gotten underway.


Dale Carnegie® is probably the most recognizable worldwide brand in professional development training. The Dale Carnegie® Course teaches effective personal interaction, stress management, persuasive communication, problem-solving, leadership, and positive attitude formation. Jones College has entered into an exclusive arrangement with Dale Carnegie® Training of Tennessee. This alliance will train current Jones College faculty to become certified Dale Carnegie® instructors. Eventually, all graduate or undergraduate majors in the Jones College will be required to complete the Dale Carnegie® Course as part of their degree program. Moreover, Jones College will have exclusivity in the service area for Dale Carnegie® Training of Tennessee, and this arrangement will not be duplicated at any other university in Tennessee. Most important, the relationship between Jones College and Dale Carnegie® is unique in the entire country and will be a key point of market differentiation between Jones College and other major business schools.


My first-hand experience communicating face-to-face with hundreds of business and community leaders shows that technical skills are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for workforce readiness. People making choices about pursuing higher education should make sure that the educational institutions they are considering develop students’ soft skills as well as their technical abilities.


*Dr. David J. Urban is Dean, Jennings A. Jones College of Business at Middle Tennessee State University.

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