University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business will offer more specialized and flexible degree options because of the growing demand for skilled workers and graduate students who are looking for more choices than the traditional MBA program.

The business school started to offer a specialized master’s program in health care communications in the fall, and next school year, a master’s program in analytics and part-time and full-time Flex MBA programs during the evenings will be added.

“I think the overarching theme from a student perspective is flexibility,” said Carleen Kerttula, director of program innovation at the business school. “They have the ability in our MBA suite to customize and choose courses. There’s fewer required courses. They can really, in essence, build their MBA and make it their own MBA.”

In recent years, the volume of applications for full-time MBA programs in the United States has dipped, though the numbers appear to be recovering, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.

“The attractiveness of an MBA has gone down, so business schools have said, ‘Well maybe unbundling and doing shorter, more specialized graduate degrees or components will help,’ ” Kerttula said. “I think that’s something that we’re all experimenting with.”

The part-time Flex MBA is a reinvention of Opus’ evening MBA program and can be completed in less than three years. Half of the program will be made up of elective classes. There also will be blended course options that combine online and in-class learning and will feature an increased emphasis on leadership and career coaching.

The new full-time Flex MBA, which takes 16 months to finish, also will provide some levels of flexibility by giving students the option after graduation to take up to 12 graduate level credits in additional courses at no added cost.

“The MBA+ option is ideal for graduates who want more in-depth education in a certain area to expand their skills for their current job or for a new role,” the school said in a news release.

In the school’s interactions with the business community through alumni, employer focus groups and additional research, Opus leaders discovered there were some specialized positions that companies were struggling to fill, Kerttula said.

One of the in-demand positions was for business analytics professionals. According to the University of St. Thomas, more than 7,000 new business analytics jobs will be created in the Twin Cities area during the next three years.

The master of science in health care communication is a way to “ensure that the state’s health care companies have the talent they need to thrive and grow,” according to the school.

A strong local talent pool is a top priority for the regional economic development group Greater MSP. In the fall, the organization announced its “Make It. MSP.” initiative, which included a website with recruitment resources for local businesses.

The 16-county metro area faces an estimated 100,000-worker shortage by 2020, according to Greater MSP.

“It is both a retention and an attraction challenge for our region to have the workforce that we are all going to need here in the future for our businesses, for our region to be competitive and successful,” said Greater MSP CEO Michael Langley.

“Both the number of jobs and the kind of jobs and the skill requirements for the jobs of the future continue to change and evolve,” he said.

Professionals who can analyze data are at a premium for the local market, especially considering some of the area’s critical industry sectors in health solutions and retail, Langley said. Educational institutions play an important role in attracting and replenishing the talent pool, he said.

St. Thomas is not the only business school in the area to adapt to the evolving changes of the local market. The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management introduced a master of science in business analytics in 2014, and a part-time version of it last year. The school will soon start master’s programs in finance and supply chain management. Carlson also has a higher percentage of its part-time MBA program offered online or in a compressed format.

The business analytics class size has grown from 24 students to a target of 80 to 100 for this year, said Phil Miller, the Carlson School’s assistant dean of MBA programs. The school is trying to broaden its appeal to students by expanding offerings.

“We used to have one product that we offered a couple ways,” Miller said. “At some point people started wanting different flavors or different sizes or different packaging.”

Schools such as Carlson and Opus will likely continue to pilot new ways to teach and prepare graduate students.

“I think we’re still early in the process and will learn as we go about what students need and what faculty needs and what the business community needs to make sure that we’re delivering these as efficiently as we possibly can,” Kerttula said.


Twitter: @nicolenorfleet