Why Business Schools Should Hop on the Soft Skills Train

Discover what business schools are doing to close the soft skills gap

Employability is of the utmost importance around here. It’s the primary reason most people seek higher education. As such, it is also the indicator we place the most emphasis on in the QS World University Rankings: Global MBA Rankings 2018 and Business Masters Rankings 2018.

But employers tell us they are still concerned about the skills gap. While the gap is wider in Asia than in North America, and other parts of the world, it still exists. The greatest divide between what employers need, and what they are getting in new hires, is related to interpersonal skills, according to the QS TopMBA.com Jobs & Salary Trends Report 2018. Our findings show another gap exists when it comes to leadership. Analytical and technical skills, and depth of knowledge, are also among the missing qualifications.

This kind of response proves a need for more attention to soft skills. Business schools should look at this data and see an opportunity. If they give soft skills the same kind of credibility as hard skills, they might make their graduates more appealing to employers.

Obviously, we’ve known for some time that skills, such as communication, teamwork, and leadership are important. But for many years, employers would overlook these qualifications, if the hire could deliver financial success for the company. Times, however, are changing.

Employers say they need more than number crunchers and salespeople. The kind of person you are makes a difference, too. Indeed, 71% of employers from the QS Global Employer Survey 2018 said character traits (such as resilience, integrity, and social responsibility) is the top factor they consider when recruiting graduates. Tied for second place on the list are soft skills (negotiation, time management, presentation) and specialist knowledge/expertise, each with 51%.

These factors come ahead of related work experience, evidence of leadership, university reputation, and quality of other recruits from the same school. Frankly, most of us in the business pay lip service far more to these latter traits when discussing employability, and even which school to attend.

Specifically, employers need great communicators, who can put together and be part of strong, diverse teams. Having a global mindset is a must. They need new hires to be able to understand interpersonal relationships and get the best out of people, no matter who they are.

Keeping up morale is as important as keeping up the bottom line. Of course, in this day and age, it is more important than ever to hire those with a strong moral backbone, who are transparent and thoughtful. This is not to mention how vital it is to nurture people who foster a safe workplace for everyone. Employers don’t just believe this because it’s the right way to conduct business; it also helps them save money, by keeping them out of costly legal trouble or having to pay fines. Not to mention the reputational damage it could cause.

Ultimately, business schools are responsible for grooming the next generation of leaders. It’s no secret that leadership is more than being able to analyze data, make a sale, or promote a line of products. There is an art to it as well.

The good news is that business schools have been listening to the concerns of recruiters. In the last decade, they have overhauled their curriculum and added workshops and panel discussions to address the softer side of being a boss. In many cases, they have made global experiences a priority.


In a recent article on TopMBA.com, we outline some of the efforts of specific schools. For instance, Stanford Graduate School of Business offers I-Lead, the Initiative for Leadership and Development. The I-Lead programs have students trying their skills in simulations that mirror real-life business situations.

In addition, they gain feedback from alumni, peers trained to help them, and faculty. The school’s famous Interpersonal Dynamics class also consistently earns high marks from students for tapping into the emotional side of managing people in intense, intimate small group conversations. This one could be a win for those trying to teach interpersonal relationship building.

There’s no question that the development of these skills depends on the character of the student, too. But there is still more business schools can do. They have two consumers – students and those who recruit them. Both will be happy if the real world visits the classroom more often. Creating more opportunities for hands-on learning, experiences abroad, and chances to test these soft skills is ideal.

QS is a big promoter of innovation in education. We, in fact, recognize those using the latest in technology to teach students at the Wharton-QS Reimagine Education Awards & Conference. In an era when technology is becoming so much a part of our life, including work, the human touch rises in importance. That is how consumers connect with a brand and its products, or services, in the digital age.

Finding ways to integrate technology and the development of these softer skills is also vital. IE won recognition from us for its Wow Room, which features artificial intelligence technology, robotics, and simulations, for example. But it also has emotion recognition systems, and a way for professors and students to engage in a meaningful way. That is the key to utilizing the technology without hindering the development of interpersonal skills.

In addition, many business schools around the world are incorporating elements of the liberal arts into their curriculum. The idea is to help students tackle complex problems that lack obvious solutions. This coursework aims to develop critical thinking and communication skills. It also helps students tap into their creative side.

For a time, people thought these soft skills were not as important as hitting sales targets and surpassing bottom-line goals. Truly, companies never should have ignored the soft skills – or lack thereof – in their managers and executives. After all, without the human capital to keep the place humming – to prevent sales from slipping, to stay atop the latest marketing trends, and so on – the bottom line will inevitably bottom out.


*This article was originally published on LinkedIn. Please feel free to follow me to share your thoughts and comments.

Nunzio Quacquarelli

Nunzio is the founder and CEO of QS. Following completion of his own MBA from the Wharton School, he has gone on to become a leader in education management with over 25 years of experience in the industry. He is truly passionate about education and firmly believes in the QS mission to help young people to fulfill their potential through educational achievement, international mobility and career development. 

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