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Colleges respond to industry demands for ‘soft skills’ Add to ...

The Globe’s biweekly business-school news roundup.

Employers and education providers don’t always see eye to eye on the job readiness of graduates.

“There is a large gap in the perception of preparedness,” says Ali Jaffer, associate principal in the Toronto office of McKinsey and Co., and a contributor to one of its global reports that found employers and postsecondary education institutions at odds over the skills of graduates.

In a 2012 survey by New York-based McKinsey, 75 per cent of education providers said graduates were adequately prepared for entry-level positions in their career field, a view shared by only 42 per cent of employers and 45 per cent of youth. When asked about soft skills, just 49 per cent of employers felt graduates were skilled in written communication compared to 63 per cent of education providers. (A Canadian report with similar themes is expected to be released shortly).

The perception gap is not lost on some Canadian colleges.

“The technical skills that graduates were going into industry with were not enough for employer needs,” says Maureen Loweth, dean of the Centre for Business at George Brown College, which surveyed Toronto-area employers last year. “Soft skills, or people skills as they are often referred to, are also needed to a higher degree of competency.”

Soft skills training already exists in its curriculum, but last fall George Brown piloted a new course devoted to nurturing communication, team work, customer service and problem-solving.

“We decided we wanted to generate more curriculum and extracurricular content and activities for students,” says Ms. Loweth, of the new course to be offered this fall.

Mike Fenton, chair of an industry advisory committee for the college’s school of marketing, welcomes the expanded offering.

“The technical skills are getting better and better in terms of what is being taught, becoming more targeted to specific industries and jobs, but the soft skills, the people skills, how to work with people traditionally have been left to the side,” says Mr. Fenton, a former George Brown instructor and current executive director of Macedonia 2025, a trade promotion organization.

“Speaking from a business standpoint, relationship skills are so important no matter what sector you are in – legal, accounting, sales and marketing,” he adds. “At the end of the day, [according to] the old business adage, you do business with the people you like to do business with.”

Other colleges are raising the profile of soft skills through collaborations with employers.

Vancouver’s British Columbia Institute of Technology and SAP Canada recently worked with a local high school to develop a course with real-life projects to teach students about team work, critical thinking and job readiness.

“They [officials at SAP Canada] want people to be numerate, to be able to present well, communicate and write,” says Robin Hemmingsen, dean of BCIT’s business school.

For graduation, BCIT business students must complete a hands-on consulting project for an industry client, an experience that tests presentation and other skills. “I firmly believe you have to simulate what is done in industry if you are going to call yourself industry-ready,” she says.

At George Brown, Ms. Loweth says the positive feedback from students last fall confirmed the merits of adding the new course.

Even students with work experience, she says, report that “the course offered value to them in creating greater self-awareness of themselves and others, and of the need for well-developed soft skills in daily life.”

Industry gift shines spotlight on supply chain management

Canadian National Railway Co. transports more than $250-billion worth of goods a year through its North American rail network, with a premium put on getting goods to market without delay.

“Customers don’t want us pointing fingers,” says Sean Finn, CN executive vice-president of corporate services. “They don’t really care whose fault it is. It comes down to what are you doing to make sure that when my ship arrives in Vancouver you can unload grain.”

With a corporate focus on identifying – and repairing – the weakest link in the supply chain, CN has pledged $500,000 over five years to support curriculum, research and other activities related to supply chain management at Wilfrid Laurier University’s business and economics school, which operates a Centre for Supply Chain Management.

“I started asking questions about their program,” says Mr. Finn, of the impetus for the donation. “I didn’t know about it [the centre] and it [supply chain management] is something close to our hearts.”

Several months ago, CN and school professors met to discuss their shared interest in supply chain issues, a prelude to the recent funding announcement.

“It clicked,” says the school’s dean Micheál Kelly, of the meeting with CN. “They realized we were doing some really interesting research in the area that conformed to some of the things they are doing.”

In addition to financial support for research and curriculum for the Waterloo, Ont., school, CN plans to offer internships, co-op education and summer employment opportunities.

Michael Haughton, a Laurier professor of operations and decision sciences, says, “We have been too modest in advertising our wares.” He says the faculty of 13 tenure-track professors and two limited-term professors have published 100 peer-reviewed articles on supply chain issues over the last decade.

The dean says he hopes CN’s donation will raise the profile of supply chain management at the school.

“Over time our goal is to build some real pillars of excellence where we can stand out nationally and supply chain management is one of those areas,” he says.

Follow Jennifer Lewington and Business School News by subscribing to an RSS feed here.

Contact Jennifer at jlewington@bell.net

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