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Universities on the Charm Offensive

Massachusetts Institute of Technology students will return from their holiday break to experience something different from their usual studies—but almost as important. It's the university's annual Charm School, offering instruction in everything from how to make a first impression to how to dress for work to which bread plate to use.

Other universities have also started teaching students how to make small talk, deal with conflict, show up on time, follow business etiquette and communicate with co-workers. These programs may be fun, or even funny, but there's a serious side to them: to give students the kinds of social skills they need to get and keep jobs.

"Everybody here is smart," says Alana Hamlett, who co-directs MIT's Charm School, which is optional and began about 20 years ago. But in a tough job market, she says: "This is one additional tool that will give you an edge. The key to being a step ahead is having those interpersonal skills and being able to work a room."

These are skills that employers complain graduates increasingly are arriving without, skills that many don't learn at home anymore and that take a back seat in an era of omnipresent electronic communications.

"This is a generation with an average of 241 social media friends but they have trouble communicating in person," says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation who's studied the current crop of students.

Employers increasingly think so, too. More than a third of managers think their youngest hires act less professionally than their predecessors, according to a national survey by the Centre for Professional Excellence at York College in Pennsylvania.

"A good resume and a degree only gets you to the table," says Matthew Randall, the center's executive director. "Professional behaviors are what get you a job. And what colleges are trying to do is help these students develop the behaviors that employers want."

York teaches a workshop for called "Mastering the Art of Small Talk"; two majors—education and sports management—require their students to take it. It also offers a seminar in taking criticism.

"This generation talks better with their thumbs than face to face," Randall says.

It's not just communicating that appears to challenge this latest group of college students. It's mingling, networking, handling conflict, eating—even dressing.

"Students don't really know what's meant by professional dress, whether it's a young lady wearing a skirt that's way too short or a young man whose pants aren't really tailored," says Hamlett. "Most students just roll out of bed in whatever it is they want to wear. There's this 'come as you are' about being a college student."

Female students in particular also follow fashion blogs: "So that lends itself to an idea of what they should be wearing, not understanding that what you see on a fashion blog may not exactly be the most appropriate thing to wear to an interview."

At Wake Forest University's business school, master's candidates are required to wear business attire to class and to be in the building from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. If they don't know what "business attire" means, that will be covered soon, too, by a program in leadership that starts next year at the Winston-Salem, N.C., school. It will, among other things, teach them how to dress.

MBA and law students at the University of Iowa learn table manners at an annual "etiquette dinner," where they're told where to rest their silverware between courses and on which side of their place settings to return their water glasses. Other schools are adding similar programs.

Smothering baby boomer parents have protected their children from the demands of the real world, as opposed to showing them how to survive it, says Aaron McDaniel author of The Young Professional's Guide to the Working World: Savvy Strategies to Get In, Get Ahead, and Rise to the Top.

"We feel so entitled to everything, because everyone has changed their lives for us," says McDaniel. "Our parents had our lives at the centre of theirs, as opposed to teaching us how things really are. It was all about us, and we expect that to continue."

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