We’re not about selling steak knives or forcing students into situations where they’re pressured to close a deal.

Ask most young people to consider a career in sales and they’re likely to roll their eyes — even in this difficult job market. They usually equate selling with a job at the Gap, or worse, a pesky telemarketer or used car huckster.

But not Kevin Bergener, who is majoring in professional sales at Florida State University. Although sceptical at first, he took the school’s introductory sales class and quickly got hooked.

“I want to interact with people and don’t want to be confined to a cubicle, so I felt sales was the best career path for me,” he said. “Also, commission-based income will let me get as much out of my work as I put in and will make me motivated to keep beating my results. My goal is a six-figure income the first year after I graduate.”

Unfortunately for employers, Bergener remains the exception among college students. Most companies struggle to fill vital sales roles with young people like Bergener, who is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about selling techniques, the psychology of buying and sales force management.

Sales representative ranked third among the top 10 jobs employers are having difficulty filling, according to a 2013 global talent shortage survey by employment and staffing firm ManpowerGroup. In Asia Pacific, sales rep was the hardest position to fill; it ranked second in the Americas.

Death of a Salesman

Employers shouldn’t expect a quick fix. When Daniel Strunk, managing director of the Center for Sales Leadership at DePaul University in Chicago, asks juniors if they’re interested in a sales career, no one raises a hand.

“They think of plays and movies like Death of a Salesman and Glengarry Glen Ross, so it’s not a wonder they don’t want to be a salesperson,” he said. “But after we get some of them to take our Fundamentals of Sales and Networking course, about 35% want to pursue a sales career.”

DePaul and a small but growing number of business schools, mostly in the US, are creating programs to teach professional sales skills. Their aim is to elevate sales to an academic discipline and make it a more respected profession. “We’re a strategic sales school,” Strunk said. “We’re not about selling steak knives or forcing students into situations where they’re pressured to close a deal.”

 University programs typically include role playing and sales call simulations, plus participation in national sales competitions. They emphasise the need to build relationships, develop negotiating skills, understand customer needs and apply business analytics and new technology tools to the sales process.

About 100 US colleges offered a sales curriculum in 2011, up from 44 in 2007, according to a study by DePaul. Most courses are at the undergraduate level and few of the top-rated business schools offer any thus far.

People skills slipping

Because of their addiction to texting and social media, millennials lack people skills and especially need to improve their communication and listening abilities in sales courses. Pat Pallentino, director of Florida State’s Sales Institute, acknowledged that many students in the school’s introductory sales class are “socially inept”, but said, “The top 15% of the class speak well and make eye contact, and a bunch are coachable when we pull them away from texting and put them in a face-to-face environment.”

Some teachers find millennials loath to do cold calling, one of the basics of selling in which a marketer calls prospective customers or clients without prior notice or permission.

“I would say college students fear cold calling the most,” Strunk said, “because they don’t like to impose on others. We have to help them get over that and understand that communication and collaboration are required between buyer and seller.”

Florida State, which has seen the number of graduating sales majors level off at about 84 a year, is evangelizing about sales careers through Facebook and Twitter and offering contests and prizes. The school also enlists parents’ support. “We tell parents at freshman orientation that our sales students don’t go back home to live after graduation,” Pallentino said. “That makes their eyes brighten.”

Even so, the Sales Institute is turning away sponsorship support from companies because it can’t provide enough candidates to recruiters to meet the demand.

“The worst thing we could do is bring customers to look at empty shelves,” Pallentino said. “You lose them forever.”

When companies sign on to such programs, they typically provide financial support, send their executives into the classroom to speak and provide input about the curriculum. That investment pays off in new hires.

Mark Kramer, president of Laird Plastics, a plastic products distributor in Boca Raton, Florida, became a sponsor at Florida State and has been hiring a few graduates annually. Before connecting with Florida State, Laird didn’t even look to campuses for candidates. “We’re a lean company and didn’t have the resources to train political science majors,” said Kramer, who now recruits at several colleges that offer specialisations in sales. “The kids we’re hiring are capable of contributing at a high level very quickly.”

In the UK, Russell Ward, chief executive officer of Silent Edge, which helps companies improve the performance of their sales staff, is trying to spark interest in sales among even younger students. He believes early education is critical to overcome the stigma of sales, which he finds to be even greater in the UK than in the US.

“Sales in the UK is considered a poor man’s job, and you’re looked down on,” Ward said. “Most people just fall into sales as a stopgap and don’t consider it a vocation. They aren’t motivated and often underperform and leave when they find an alternative job.”

Ward taught 17- and 18-year-olds at his son’s school about selling, and three ended up in sales jobs. His firm also has partnered with a local sales academy to provide three months of instruction and nine-month apprenticeships to millennials. “To me, sales should be taught as much as English and math to students in their teen years,” Ward said. “They can learn how to build a value proposition, develop rapport and listen to people. Not everyone wants to go to university.”