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Market research and data analysis skills in short supply

Anna Meliksetyan chose the research analyst program at Humber College after her undergrad degree in order to learn some hard skills.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

When Humber College conceptualized its new research analyst program, it practised what it intended to teach – analyzing the market and tapping into "a tremendous need."

Employer response was resounding, and the college was flooded with applications from students – most with undergraduate university degrees, many with master's degrees, and a couple of PhDs.

"It was an easy sell, quite frankly, because there was such a demand for it," says Jason Galea, associate dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Toronto-based Humber College Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning, which launched the program this fall.

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Only a handful of other Canadian colleges, including Georgian College based in Barrie, Ont., and Algonquin College based in Ottawa, offer graduate programs that concentrate on market research methods and data analysis – skills that, industry leaders say, are in short supply.

"I think these programs are going to crop up in different areas [of the country]," says Georgian College professor Jeff Cole, citing growing demand from the private sector for more sophisticated market intelligence and the public sector's need for more comprehensive research on which to base public policy decisions.

Prof. Galea adds: "Given that we are part of the so-called information age, the demand for social and market research has increased. ... We have so much information to deal with. Because of the pace of society, we now need experts who can make sense of all that information, who can identify what is relevant and irrelevant. Organizations have recognized the need for good research on which to base key policy and strategic decisions."

Ricardo Gomez-Insausti, vice-president of research at BBM Canada and chairman of the advisory board for Humber's research analyst program, says it has been difficult, as an employer, to find graduates who possess not only the hard statistical and technical skills needed to gather reliable data, but also the theoretical knowledge needed to understand consumer behaviour.

"Every time we would search to get a hire, it was very challenging," says Mr. Gomez-Insausti, whose company, along with others in the industry, will build on Humber's classroom lessons by providing three-month internship opportunities next spring.

By then, the students will have completed courses covering all major aspects of the research process, Prof Galea says. "There is a need for people who are qualified to do a range of things – everything from research design, information retrieval and evaluation, analysis and interpretation, preparation and presentation of research findings."

Anna Meliksetyan chose the research analyst program because, like many of her cohorts, she was not quite sure what to do with her undergraduate degree. (She majored in law and society at Toronto's York University.)

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"When I graduated and started looking for work, it was really difficult for me when I was writing my résumé and I got to the skills section. I couldn't think of any skills to write other than a great communicator and a good writer. I couldn't think of any technical skills."

After teaching English and Canadian culture in China for a year, Ms. Meliksetyan, 26, returned to Canada and enrolled at Humber.

"I can already name off the top of the head three skills I have learned: No. 1 is writing proposals. No. 2, at the very minimum, I can do some statistics on Excel and present the information to someone who does not understand the theory, but will be able to understand the results of my research. No. 3, I can build a basic survey," Ms. Meliksetyan says. "That's exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to get hard skills."

Prof. Cole says the research analyst program at Georgian College also attracts university graduates, like Ms. Meliksetyan, who want to apply "that knowledge, curiosity and skill they have towards a career in applied social research, program evaluation or marketing research."

"We funnel about 60 per cent of our students to the marketing research industry, which consists largely of research supplier firms, names that the general public may or may not be familiar with – Ipsos, Harris/Decima, Environics.

"But, increasingly, we are placing our students into organizations ... that have a research function within them – places like Kraft, Kellogg, Loblaw, CBC, the Weather Network," Prof. Cole says.

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"They do research to understand their share of the market, or what customers think of the packaging or the product itself, and increasingly they are building staff internally to assist the company in those marketing functions."

Prof. Galea said there is also a growing demand in the not-for-profit and public sectors for social-based research and program evaluation that the new generation of research analysts will be able to meet.

Adds Prof. Cole: "We have lots of history grads here, lots of psychology grads, lots of poli-sci grads who come to our program, and we are immediately able to articulate a set of [career] opportunities that might be of interest to them."

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