Montana State University

MSU College of Business takes students from backpack to briefcase

January 12, 2010 -- Anne Pettinger Cantrell, MSU News Service


MSU College of Business professors say that members of the Net Generation tend to communicate differently than do members of previous generations. The college has created a Professional Advantage program designed to give graduates an edge in their job searches and careers. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.    High-Res Available

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A Montana State University business student and soon-to-be graduate was trying to land her first job. Remy Clark applied to a local company in Bozeman, interviewed with that company, and then received a letter informing her that someone else had been chosen for the position.

Many would leave it at that. But Clark called the person she interviewed with, thanked him for the interview, and asked if he would be comfortable meeting with her and letting her know why the company chose someone else for the job. Company managers were so impressed with Clark's professionalism and follow-through that they recommended her for a different position.

"I took the opportunity to meet with company managers so that I could learn more about myself and get some feedback, and so that I could gain extra insight and improve," Clark said of her decision to request feedback from the company. Clark, now 25, graduated from the MSU College of Business last May and is working as a manager for the Gallup organization in Lincoln, Neb. "Connections and networks are so important and valuable," Clark added.

While seasoned employees might place such phone calls routinely, MSU College of Business faculty members say that recent college graduates are less likely to do so. This and other behaviors, such as a tendency to communicate electronically rather than in person, place younger job seekers at a disadvantage, said Dan Moshavi, dean of the College of Business.

To help, the College has created a Professional Advantage program designed to give graduates an edge in their job searches and careers.

"Our program is designed to take students from 'backpack to briefcase,'" Moshavi said. "We not only help them find good jobs, but develop the skills that will benefit them throughout their careers."

"One of the things I've heard from employers is that students prefer electronic communication to human communication," said Susan Dana, associate dean of the college. "My concern is that electronic communication, in some ways, allows you to avoid responsibility. There's a distance with it. You don't have to experience another person's emotions."

The tendency to communicate over a computer or by text messaging can be very damaging, Dana added.

"I've heard employers say they are very frustrated by this," Dana said. "It's a real problem, and that's partially because I don't think students understand it's a problem."

Because of these tendencies, the MSU College of Business is finding ways to teach traditional business skills to students who think and communicate in ways that are different from those of previous generations.

The Professional Advantage program is geared toward members of the Net Generation, since many of the business college's current students fall into its ranks and because that generation may possess unique strengths and challenges.

Sociologists have said Net Gen birthdates span the years between the early 1980s to the late 1990s, and members are currently between about the ages of 14 and 28. While terms vary widely, members of the Net Generation are part of Generation Y and are also called the Millennial Generation or Generation Next. The generation's members are sometimes referred to as Millennials or Echo Boomers, and they follow members of Generation X.

Members of the Net Generation distinguish themselves in several ways from other generations, said Scott Bryant, a business professor.

First, they are a generation whose members are driven by technology, and to a much greater extent than members of any other generation. With new social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, ubiquitous Internet access, and text messaging, members of the generation are poised to communicate constantly.

"They may make use of Facebook and other social media outlets to benefit the organizations (they work for)," Bryant said. "They understand these communication issues, and how to use them effectively. These ideas are more ingrained in them than in other generations."

However, because constant communication is so expected, Bryant added, "a blurring of personal and professional communication might happen."

Sometimes, this might be to the student's or recent graduate's detriment.

"I'm not sure students always understand the lines between personal and professional," Bryant said.

Members of the generation are sometimes thought to be more flexible, adaptable, and capable of multi-tasking than members of other generations.

Bryant says many members of the Net Generation want to make a difference in the world with the careers they choose. Rather than being concerned about making big money, many Net Gen'ers are concerned about poverty, the environment, sustainable energy and social entrepreneurship.

However, some people also think members of the Net Generation can be impatient, require constant feedback, and have an undeserved sense of entitlement.

Despite these perceived differences, Bryant believes members of the Net Generation actually have more similarities with members of other generations than they do differences.

"These recent college graduates, like many who came before them, generally want challenging work, the opportunity to advance, the ability to work with people they like, fair compensation, and the chance to make a difference," Bryant said. "Regardless of their generation, people are motivated and work hard."

Whether or not the stereotypes about members of the Net Generation are true, the College of Business can help students learn how to communicate more professionally and effectively, Moshavi said. In turn, he said graduates will be more successful in the workforce and more sought-after than other potential employees.

Specifically, Moshavi says the Professional Advantage program will help business students develop strong professional skills and demeanor, including communication skills, critical thinking abilities, decision-making skills and social skills. The program includes courses and processes that both develop and assess professional skills, adoption of a student code, PRIDE (performance, respect, integrity, diligence, engagement), scholarships that reward professional behavior, and a student-led initiative to encourage students to dress professionally on Thursdays. In addition, efforts are underway to raise money to help launch an executive coaching clinic.

Business instructor Minette Jessup teaches a class that is designed to emphasize professionalism.

"Professionalism applies to everybody," Jessup said. "No matter where you are in life, it's something you need to strive for. It's also a learning process, a work in progress."

With a job market considerably tougher than in recent years, Jessup thinks it's especially important to practice professionalism. And, it's better to learn these skills in college than outside of it.

"If students can learn how to improve professionalism in an academic setting, it will be much more natural in the workplace and may give them an edge when they go out to look for a job," Jessup said.

In her class, Jessup has the students do role-playing for a number of scenarios including interviewing and professional social exchanges, and she brings in business people from the community to critique them. She also plans to include 360-degree evaluations in future classes, or evaluations from people representing all areas of the students' lives.

Ultimately, Moshavi expects that emphasizing professional skills and development will set undergraduate MSU College of Business graduates apart.

"This type of initiative is unique for undergraduate college of business students and is a powerful way to signal recruiters that our students can excel both technically and professionally," Moshavi said.

Dan Moshavi, (406) 994-4423 or dmoshavi@montana.edu