My very first UCF Twitter follower was Clayton Pritchard (@C_Pritchard). He has a certain status with me. Not just because he was a trend-setter but because he asks really good questions. Clayton asked me to comment on “the challenge of a university to stay current to the ever changing skill needs of the market.” Wow, Clayton, books could be written on that topic: I’m sure several have. I can’t do justice to your question in a single blog post but let me make three observations about how I think about this topic.
First, a surprising amount of the “skills needed to succeed in the market” really haven’t changed much over time. When you look at data from employers about what they look for in new hires, the same things appear year after year: (1) good communication skills; (2) the ability to work in team settings; (3) an analytic mind that understands numbers, (4) the ability to creatively solve problems and (5) the ability to motivate others. This is why I am so big on students developing good conceptual frameworks and strong general skills. Writing, math, and platform skills never go out of style. Critical thinking from a well-disciplined mind and problem solving abilities are important in all work environments (and life in general). Make sure you get these while you are in school. Your career will take you in several, often unexpected, directions. These are difficult to predict. An investment in general skills will see you through: The rest is largely context.
This gets me to my second point. A good college education makes you a life-long learner. It teaches you how to learn and adapt. How to take things you are familiar with in one context and apply them to a different environment. So, if you got a good marketing class and a good IT class, you should be able to learn what you need to know about internet marketing on your own. If you feel you need some additional help, take an executive education class. Executive programs and workshops are far better at getting you up to speed on emerging issues and practices than traditional college courses. University courses tend to be about expanding your conceptual tool kit, developing general skills and giving you information about best practices in established areas. They are not well-suited to just in time learning on emerging trends in highly specialized areas like IT where practices change quickly.
None of this is meant to suggest that curriculum does not change in response to business needs. Colleges of business rely on their advisory boards: groups of accomplished business professionals in their fields to ensure that program content is both rigorous and relevant. These boards can be very helpful in identifying general trends across industries that suggest modifications in curriculum: things such as the ability to work in cross-functional teams, entrepreneurial thinking, or an increase in demand for people with mathematical modeling skills. What is important is to identify trends and new fundamental skill sets that are being employed across a variety of industries—things that if taught will increase the employment prospects of students across a broad spectrum of employers, not just for a few.
So in a sense, university curricula are conservative by design: We want to make sure you understand the fundamental concepts and principles of your chosen profession. The practice of business can be trendy at times. Theory X was replaced by Theory Y which was replaced by Theory Z. Total quality management had its day: Lean manufacturing too. Six Sigma has its followers. Big data and sustainability are currently all the rage. It’s hard to guess which of these things will persist, which will evolve and which will fade away, but if you get a good organizational behavior course and understand statistics you’ll be able to adapt to the latest practice, whatever it might be.
Paul Jarley, Ph.D., is the dean of the UCF College of Business Administration. He blogs every week at http://www.bus.ucf.edu/dean. This post appeared on November 1, 2012. Follow him on Twitter @pauljarley.