What Top Employers Look For In MBA Candidates
September 6, 2018

What Top Employers Look For In MBA Candidates

Reported by AS Senthil Kumar - Dongrila Inc. Editorial Board

Python is one of the most important tools of her job as a senior data insights and analytics director at BMG, the music company. But when she started the job, her lack of precise technical skills turned out not to matter, because Insead had taught her the right attitude: “be unafraid”. So she ended up teaching herself Python with the help of additional online courses.

“To look at something and go ‘I don’t know anything about this, and I’m going to teach it to myself’ is more valuable when you work in the tech sector than what you actually know,” Ms Zimmermann says.

That ability to solve complex problems is one of five skills rated most important by employers in the 2018 FT MBA Skills Gap survey, which seeks to provide a snapshot of the skills in demand — and those that are hard to find — in MBA graduates.

Below are the most significant trends.

1. Soft skills are most important

Our data shows that employers want to hire graduates with loosely defined qualities known as “soft skills”, such as the abilities to work within a team and with a wide variety of people — rated most important by 64 and 54 per cent of respondents respectively.

“Hard” skills, which are traditionally taught on MBA courses, are different. Employers said candidates with these skills, which include accountancy, were easier to find.

Susan Sandler Brennan, assistant dean at the career development office of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, says: “I reject the idea that so-called soft skills are somehow easier — they are harder.”

Such skills will prove resistant to automation, she predicts. But they are harder for employers to assess during the recruitment process than, for example, proficiency in accounting — one of the skills employers find easiest to hire. A rise in pre-interview online assessments means many employers only meet face-to face those candidates who have passed tests on hard skills.

The ability to build, sustain and expand a network may be a skill employers value highly, but “unless [MBA graduates] have technical skill requirements, they are not even getting through the door,” Ms Sandler Brennan says.

2. Some employers are questioning the value of MBAs

Some leading employers are increasingly sceptical about the MBA qualification as a means of delivering candidates with the skills they need — soft or hard.

“At an MBA level we would expect candidates to have professional experience, be able to manage a team and act as a leader with clients,” says Anna Purchas, partner and head of people at KPMG UK.

The consultancy looks for candidates with subject expertise, leadership skills and enthusiasm. But KPMG UK has found it is just as likely to find employees with these skills directly from industry — and increasingly from technology companies — as it is from business schools. “We don’t specifically go out to attract the MBA crowd, and we don’t even track how many of our hires have an MBA, which in itself is telling,” Ms Purchas says.

3. Big data matters

Employers across all sectors said big data analysis was one of the rarest and most difficult skills to recruit — 13 per cent of companies rated it as “impossible” to hire.

At KPMG, applicants for roles in cyber security or data analytics consultancy teams are expected to be well-versed in programming languages such as Python and R, and data visualisation tools such as Tableau.

Ms Zimmermann says the lack of technical training during her MBA did not affect her satisfaction with the course — the skills she learnt were still valuable — but she believes business schools are not placing enough emphasis on such technical skills at a time when the technology sector is hiring their graduates.

Sangeet Chowfla, chief executive of the Graduate Management Admission Council, says business schools are trying to introduce technical elements to courses and that the rate of development “is fairly fast”.

Nevertheless, a third of technology companies that answered an FT’s survey said programming is the skill they find most difficult to recruit in MBA graduates.

MIT’s Sloan, which Ms Brennan says has “tech in its DNA” does not offer formal classes in programming, but Maura Herson, assistant dean of the school’s MBA, says there are non-credit options available to interested students. 

4. Employers find it increasingly difficult to hire graduates with the right skills

Just under half of the 72 employers surveyed said they struggled to hire MBA graduates with the right skills — both soft and hard — compared with a third of companies last year.

Mr Chowfla suggests business schools should act on this MBA skills gap in two ways: by identifying candidates with the right potential, and by “building diverse classrooms” that allow students to work with others who are not like them on unfamiliar challenges. Both will help graduates operate in increasingly complex workplaces.

In terms of the most important skills in the workforce, graduates mainly agreed with employers: soft skills matter the most.

But when asked what skills MBA students were most proficient in, the results were contradictory, suggesting the expectations of employers and candidates are mismatched.

Two of the skills that graduates from elite MBA programmes found they were most proficient in — drive and resilience, and the ability to solve complex problems — were also among the skills recruiters said they found the most elusive in MBA graduates.

“Early MBA graduates may overvalue their abilities,” Ms Sandler Brennan says.

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