Soapbox

June 21, 2013 11:16 am

Hard times for soft skills

Personal development training is an essential area that should not be neglected

In a global economy where businesses work across international borders and distinctive cultures, the ability to communicate is highly valued among companies looking for potential employees. Yet this is often one of the skills that gets pushed aside when business schools are under pressure to condense their programmes into shorter timeframes.

We have seen two-year programmes mutate into one-year offerings and now 10, nine or even eight-month masters in science programmes are becoming the norm. Nowhere is the reluctance to include “soft skill” training more apparent than in MSc finance programmes where the programmes are getting shorter while content is getting broader.

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So what are these soft skills? They refer to a set of personal qualities and attitudes which make someone compatible and easy to work with – essentially people skills. They are the intangible, personality specific skills that determine your strengths as a leader, negotiator, presenter and efficient team worker.

But this is not the whole story – of equal importance is the ability to self-motivate, an attitude incorporating ethics and responsibility and the essential aptitude of being able to work under pressure. In fact, shorter programmes might actually help in developing resistance to pressure as students are required to work under more stress than if they were undertaking a two-year programme and without doubt, working in the financial sector requires this key competence.

As pressure grows on academics and programme managers to reduce delivery hours without compromising academic rigour and content, the choice is often between which subjects to “go light” on and which ones to omit altogether. Indeed, there has rarely been much appetite to teach soft skill competencies among many of the “serious” business schools and yet businesses, including financial institutions, are saying these are exactly the skills they are looking for in potential employees.

However, things might be starting to change, not least because students are recognising the value of being able to deliver a professional presentation, of being able to negotiate with clients from different cultures and of being able to motivate teams, even if they are not leading them. A number of schools offering masters in finance programmes are realising that students select them not just because of their ranking or the fact they are CFA partners but because they also offer a comprehensive professional and personal development programme.

Indeed, the CFA has recognised the importance of ethics and responsibility by putting this at the core of their syllabus. It is important that business schools recognise that this is not a course, rather an attitude and set of values which needs to be transmitted throughout the programme.

It is clear that there is still a mismatch between what universities and business schools provide and what is required by the businesses that employ graduates. Companies increasingly look for young people they can use from day one – an MSc has to be a preparation for the business world, not just another year of university.

The challenge for business schools is how to react to the dual pressures of shorter programmes coupled with greater content. This may not be an easy circle to square. However, it would be folly to ignore the opinions and needs of students and their future employers. Soft skill training may sound dispensable but in fact it is an essential area that should not be neglected.

The author is the director of the International Masters in Finance and International Masters in Management programmes at Eada Business School, Spain.

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