These charming men. And women.

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.

A couple of years ago I noted a report on the teaching of “life skills” to students preparing to leave home for university and having to look after themselves for the first time. Now there is a report on how universities are stepping in to fill students’ social-skills gaps ready for the world of work after graduation. The basics of everyday working life seem to be on offer:

After final exams are over, MIT 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.

“And we call these ‘buttons’…”

Other colleges have 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 deadly serious purpose to them: to give students the kinds of social skills they need to get and keep a job.

All highly necessary I am sure but I suspect it is rare to be faced with a choice of bread plates in most social situations these days.

It does seem a bit surprising that this kind of activity is required but it is clearly widespread:

York teaches a workshop for sophomores 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.

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

MIT students participate in Charm School, a series of short classes designed to teach everything from how to network with alumni to tying a bowtie.

“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 MIT’s 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.”

This ‘come as you are approach’ is not confined to the US. Here at the University of Nottingham the Careers and Advisory Service also runs an annual fashion show highlighting the importance of a professional appearance in the workplace.

What difference does it make? We’ll see.

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