The story of today’s graduates in Alberta, be it a Bachelor of Commerce or a focused college business certificate, is similar to many other parts of the country. Faced with a gig-focused labour market and increased competitiveness for the dwindling full-time positions, students need an education that not only gives them knowledge and skills, but helps them network and discover opportunities in the labour market. It is a problem that has only grown more common over the past decade, and will continue to change as Edmonton’s economy transforms in the coming years.
Stories of this labour market vary from year-to-year, and from person-to-person. If full-time employment is your only metric, then prospects are looking good for many commerce degree graduates. The University of Alberta ran a survey in 2015 that found “85.5 per cent of all newly minted Bachelor of Commerce grads who responded to an online poll have landed full-time jobs.” Job vacancy rates in Alberta in 2016, however, had fallen “down by 35,000 (-47.9 per cent) from the first quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016,” according to Statistics Canada. Graduates with university degrees were and are finding employment as receptionists and filing clerks. Full-time employment is secured, but the statistics suggest many grads were working outside of their chosen field.
This is a problem that many of Edmonton’s post-secondary institutions, especially in their business faculties and programs, are tackling head on. A number of degrees and programs at the University of Alberta, MacEwan University and NorQuest College offer practical experience and the opportunity to work directly with local companies.
Robert White, who teaches business law at MacEwan University, believes this is the right step. “Working in a business is a lot easier when you know the business’ industry well,” he says. “I think many students go out into the workforce without a knowledge of the industry in which they end up. Providing specific knowledge of certain industries will give students a head start, and may also help them figure out what type of business they want to work in.”
Combining Education and Experience
At the University of Alberta, MBA students must complete a capstone project, a course that sees students meet with real businesses and work on a strategic issue that local companies are facing. The program helps students gain real-world experience and a more rounded understanding of how businesses work.
According to Chris Lynch, senior director of recruitment at the University of Alberta’s School of Business, understanding the multifaceted nature of businesses is important. “Whether a student ends up in marketing or accounting, it is important to have a fundamental understanding of each of the different areas of business, how they interact, and why each is important to a business’ success,” he says. “[The capstone] gives students some experience applying what they’ve learned in the classroom out in real organizations. Every business or organization has their own strengths, challenges, and constraints – it’s good for students to see how different industries operate.”
The capstone offers benefits for students and businesses. Besides giving students practical experience and a possible network contact, Lynch says “the capstone projects help organizations with business challenges they are facing, but also exposes students to sectors or industries they may never have considered working for otherwise.”
At NorQuest College, the relationship with local businesses starts before the students even register. Faculty and program heads work directly with local businesses to determine the courses and skills businesses are looking for, and adapt their offerings to help students who graduate.
“We have program advisory committees and what they do is bring business and industry in to talk about current trends and the skills that business and industry need,” says Corey Mushynsky, associate dean at NorQuest College. “Then we look at revising our curriculum so that we are giving them those grads with the skills that they are looking for. We try to do that across all of our programs.”
One such example of responding to the needs of today’s businesses is a broader scope within their specialized programs. “We have specializations that focus on things like accounting or HR or management and, within those, we offer focused courses on business operations or even entrepreneurship,” he says. “It’s about helping students become well-rounded, and have the ability to work in a flexible environment.”
This aspect of curriculum development is key to NorQuest College’s focus on what they call “workforce relevant programming,” programs that help students minimize the time between getting the skills they need and being productive members of the workforce. “Our students are typically looking for programs that get them to work a little quicker. They’re coming in here for short programs so they can get into the industry and be productive,” Mushynsky says.
Just like at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University, NorQuest connects students with local businesses for practical experience and networking opportunities. “Within business, we have noticed our students need more opportunities to work on their networking skills. Many of the businesses we work with like to give back to our students, so they help them expand their networks and contacts so that when they do graduate, they have some people to contact for work.”
Connections Today, Opportunities Tomorrow
Within this focus on getting students into the real world is a chance to help students develop their soft skills. Looking forward, White believes one of the key issues that Alberta will continue to face is communication, something that, in his experience, can lead to costly, time-consuming issues. “[Students] need to learn effective communication, both oral and written,” he says. “Many misunderstandings and problems, including legal problems, arise because of ineffective communication. Learning how to communicate so there cannot be misunderstanding avoids a lot of problems.”
These problems, he says, are expensive for all parties involves, from small businesses right up to the government itself. “Legal disputes are inefficient and decrease the province’s economic performance,” he points out. “They inhibit production, result in the transfer of wealth, and incur extra costs for businesses. They can even destroy businesses. Educating ‘legal-conscious’ business people will improve the province’s economy as these legal disputes are reduced.”
Alberta’s economy is changing. Faced with new prospects and new industries, along with developing new technologies for its existing economic powerhouses, Alberta needs to think long-term, starting with the education of the next generation of workers, innovators, and leaders. Doing so is not only important for Alberta’s future, but also for its present. As students graduate, they need to not only have the skills needed to move Alberta forward, but the opportunity to do so. For Edmonton’s major post-secondary institutions, ensuring students are well-equipped in knowledge, skills and networks is essential, especially as Alberta’s economy continues to change.