Business courses make their pitch

How a business course can help make graduates more employable

 

Capitalism loves to bang on about competition and the value of the marketplace. So why do does a degree in business deserve your precious business, and what exactly are these colleges trying to sell you?

Professor Anthony Brabazon is the interim dean of the college of business at University College Dublin. We asked him to make his pitch.

“I’d always advise people to study what interests you the most,” says Brabazon. “But many do know when they’re filling out that CAO form that they want to pursue a degree in business. It provides an excellent education that prepares people for a wide range of careers and is proven to be a good choice.”

Brabazon, who worked as a chartered accountant with KPMG before moving into academia, says that he has seen major changes in the world of business over the past 25 years and that a degree can prepare graduates for the changes that will come.

“The biggest changes I’ve seen are globalisation, an increase in the role of technology in the workplace and a transformation in how people view their career with people no longer expecting to have one job for life. These changes have big implications for the design of business education. We need to prepare students for the world they will face so that they can thrive in this environment, so business education has moved from concentrating on the technical aspects of business to a broader focus on communication, teamwork, problem-solving and leadership skills. Cultural awareness is also really important, because careers are so global these days: if you are working for an Irish firm you will be competing internationally and will also work with different people from all over the world.”

Robert Mac Giolla Phadraig is chief commercial officer and founding director of Sigmar Recruitment, which recruits hundreds of business graduates every year. He has a keen insight into what employers want, so are business graduates on their wish list?

“The real benefit of a business course is that it uses case studies to give a broad awareness of a business, and it also helps students to build a network of contacts,” he says. “The world of business is broad, vast and varied and won’t always neatly align what is learned in a module. But what is being assessed when a graduate enters employment is their competencies in areas such as communication, teamwork and problem-solving. The ever-important soft skills are being developed. It’s less about what is learned than how it is learned: with case studies, complex problems to be solved, guest speakers and examples which help to develop an entrepreneurial subculture among students.”

It’s not all about grades and academic learning, Brabazon agrees: a business course helps students to grow into the well-rounded people that employers value.

“There is a war for talent, and companies want the highest-calibre talent they can get. If you are going to have an impact in the workplace you need to be able to communicate well, work in teams, lead teams and collaborate with international colleagues. The best way to show you can have an impact is to show that you have made an impact in the past, so I advise students to go beyond their academic studies: get involved in a sports club or student society, volunteer and take on part-time work. It’s about being able to show you have made a difference in what you have done, not just getting high grades for yourself.”

Increasingly, major firms are less concerned about graduates having high grades and much more interested in assessing their competencies in these key areas, with a range of psychometric tests now common for job applicants.

That said, Mac Giolla Phadraig is far from dismissive of the intrinsic value of the academic content on a business course. A broad business course may contain a selection of modules across a range of areas such as sales, marketing and supply chain management as well as more formulaic classes on finance and business maths, which can help students to pivot and multitask across the full range of a company’s operations.

The alumni network which students build up on a business course is really important, says Brabazon. “As you pass through a degree, you are automatically building up this contact base of your classmates, and that alumni network will mean that you know people all over the world. In our courses, we offer a mentoring programme which connects every student with a panel of experienced alumni which can really help their career progression.”

When it comes down to it, what makes one business course stand out over another? “An internship or placement can be really valuable,” Mac Giolla Phadraig advises.

“It’s really helpful if a graduate has an understanding of what it is like to work in a certain industry, because it helps them to focus on the right fit once they have left. The more examples of experience and relevant skills that a job applicant can bring to an interview, the better. It’s particularly valuable when an applicant can show what they have learned on the placement instead of just coasting through it. We had a management buy-out of Sigmar about nine years ago, and I learned so much of that through doing; business learning does come from real experience.”

No college graduate, of any discipline, can expect that graduation will be the end of their education. Continuous professional development is increasingly important and a good business course should help prepare students for a world where they need to constantly pivot, says Mac Giolla Phadraig. “I’d advise graduates to compete on merit and to show their merit through work, academia and extracurricular activity.”

Would he advise students to opt for a broad, general business degree, or to hone in on a specific area like marketing or accounting?

“Decisions are often driven by influencers such as peers and, in particular, parents. But if someone knows from a young age what they want to do, that is a gift, so they should go for it. For the other 95 per cent of us, it’s probably the case that a broader degree is better.”

Panel: How a business course helped me: Julie Bothwell, National Used Car and Internal Fleet Manager at BMW Ireland

“I decided on business and marketing because these were the subjects I really enjoyed in schools and where my strengths were. I wanted a course that would allow me to go into an area where I had lots of different opportunities, so I chose marketing at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

“When choosing my degree, I researched a lot of courses, and I found it really beneficial to speak to friends and family who were already studying business or marketing; this can sometimes tell you a lot more about a course than any prospectus can.

“A business course gave me an academic grounding in the field I wanted to pursue. It was an intense course which was challenging at times, but this gave me great experience on how to prioritise, plan and deliver in the timeframes we were given, and these are the foundations of what you need to do in your daily job. The course covered a wide variety of subjects with a great mix of theory and more practical case study projects. We worked as a team on a projects and this is valuable experience for the workplace. I was also grateful for the level of support and interaction we had with our lecturers at DIT, and lecturers pushed us hard but were always there to guide and support us. The course taught me prioritise, plan and deliver on work.

“In 2008, I joined BMW Group Ireland as a sales and marketing assistant. In that role, I supported the various different sales and marketing functions in the business. Then, in 2010, I took up the position of product manager, which involved product pricing, communication, online management, product training analysis and organisation. In 2012, I became national parts manager which required me to manage all the commercial aspects and the strategic development of the retailer network parts performance and manage the marketing and promotional campaign for parts; most importantly, I ensured that customers were well looked after. From here, I took up my current position of national used car and internal fleet manager in 2015, and I’m responsible for the strategic development of our used car programme for the retailer network, retailer support and used car marketing.

“I was lucky that I chose I course I loved and was able to do it well. The key is to have a consistent approach to working hard to ensure you keep on top of what you need to do. Some of the most important attributes in business are good logic and a lot of cop on. It also helped to have a strong network of friends around me on the course, because we all supported each other - and, in business, your personality and communication skills shouldn’t be underestimated.”