Too Many MBA Students Graduate Without Right Sustainability Skills

Just in the last few years, we've seen the rise of the chief sustainability officer as companies move to integrate social and environmental performance into their core business strategies.

But you wouldn't necessarily know it based on the way business schools are prepping their students, new research suggests. Many business leaders see few MBA students hitting the job market equipped with the skills needed to meet their corporate sustainability goals.

"The one big conclusion is that what students are being taught about sustainable development is far removed from the reality of how it's being applied in the marketplace," said Terry F. Yosie, president and CEO of the World Environment Center (WEC). "As a result, students are not receiving the level of preparation that they could be receiving in order to work at a major global company."

The WEC teamed up with Net Impact, the sustainability-focused student and professional network, for the report, "Business Skills for a Changing World: An Assessment of What Global Companies Need from Business Schools." The partners interviewed 33 sustainability executives in companies spanning sectors and geographies for the report, which is scheduled for release today.

They sought to explore which skills are required for tomorrow's sustainability leaders, how business schools are moving to fill the demand and what companies could do to support any effort.

What they found was no surprise -- people have been talking about the skills gap among business students for some time, Yosie said -- but he doesn't think people were aware just how big that gap is. As a result, companies are also left doing a lot of internal training and preparation because school curricula is much too narrowly focused.

MBA graduates entering the workforce need a number of desired skills, business leaders said:

• Inside-out skills: Those needed for the day-to-day duties, such as an understanding of project management, finance, marketing and risk mitigation.
• Outside-in skills: Those needed to assess the external issues that can impact a business, including knowledge of public policy and the multi-cultural perspectives of the communities in which the company operates.
• Traversing skills: Those that intersect the first two sets of skills, such as systems thinking and interpersonal skills that can be used to communicate with internal and external audiences.

Yosie cited several reasons for the growing gap, including the fact that business schools still view sustainability as an environmental or philanthropic topic, whereas companies view sustainability as a business strategy and are innovating rapidly, leaving universities behind. Sustainability content is often isloated and rarely integrated across curricula, he said, and the curricula itself often ignores the growing importance of social issues.

Companies can play a role in addressing some of these issues by communicating with business schools about what they're looking for and how they are integrating sustainability in their own companies.

"There needs to be a lot more interaction between companies and business schools," Yosie said. "There is a lag and lack of knowledge of how these companies are really functioning."

Graduation image via Shutterstock.