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Niche business education programs open the road to better careers

Peter Conforti, right, wanted to ‘set up a career’ in the auto sector, so he turned to The Automotive Business School of Canada at Georgian College in Barrie, Ont., where Jim Smith is an instructor.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

From a young age, Peter Conforti knew he wanted to have a career that involved cars.

"I have a high passion for cars," says the 22-year-old. "I always loved cars as a kid, and I thought, 'Why not pursue a career in it?'"

It was an easy choice, admits Mr. Conforti, because there was only one school in his mind that fit his specific academic requires to "set up a career" in the auto sector: The Automotive Business School of Canada at Georgian College in Barrie, Ont.

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"I had my sights set on this program and I pursued it," he adds.

ABSC offers both a diploma (two years) and an honours degree program (four years) that couple fundamental courses found in traditional business schools with exclusive courses that delve into the automotive sector. These niche courses are developed by members of the automotive industry to address the skills, operations knowledge and leadership requirements specific to the auto sector.

It's these niche business programs at Canada's colleges and smaller universities that not only capture students with a well-defined career path, but also answer a call from industries and communities alike that need to fill both an economic and cultural gap.

"We were created in 1985 because the automotive industry wanted to provide young people with the basis of getting educated in [the specifics of] one of the largest employers in the country," says Jim Smith, an instructor at ABSC. "And our enrolment has increased 30 per cent this year over last year."

The goal is to match market needs with business education, according to Mr. Smith, and it is setting these programs and their graduates apart from their larger counterparts.

"Because these students already have the industry training, the learning curve after they join the corporation or dealership is a lot less than if they hire a [university] grad from the business program who now needs to learn all about the auto industry," he says.

Some of these business programs are also taking advantage of their small size and nimble nature to intensify the already-narrow focus of programs offered in the larger schools.

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Several business schools in Canada's West – including The Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and The Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon – have business administration programs specifically designed to address the distinct needs of Indigenous communities and business.

But Camosun College in Victoria wanted to take it a step further and design a business program specifically with Indigenous students in mind. Its small size allows its focus to be whittled down beyond other programs with a business and Indigenous connection.

Students here are taught the fundamentals of business, but the "primary focus is on welcoming indigenous learners," explains Susanne Thiessen, acting program leader of the Indigenous Business Leadership program.

While there are non-Indigenous students in some of the program's classes, it is not the norm and the school plans to keep it that way.

"What we hear is that our students want to have a solid grounding in business tools, whether that's marketing or accounting or human resource management, but they also want to study and talk about issues that are relevant and real to them in their classrooms," says Dr. Thiessen.

Not only can these programs offer students specialized training in a specific industry, in some cases, they can also get them into the work force faster.

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Answering the demands of the tourism industry, students in the bachelor of hospitality and tourism management (BHTM) at Cape Breton University's Shannon School of Business in Sydney, N.S., graduate into the work force in three years – a full year before many of their counterparts.

It's one of the advantages of being a small program, according to Mary Jane Morrison, instructor and program lead for the BHTM.

"The program was, indeed, a response to the marketplace, both the degree and the original diploma," says Ms. Morrison, who explains that students in the BHTM program come from all over the world. "The three-year program is a rarity in the industry, and has become quite popular … in a global market," she adds.

Being in a small place just adds to the close ties between industry and the program. Situated in a community of about 31,500 the BHTM program serves as a sought-after talent pool in the area.

"Due to our small community, we have great relationships with charity or volunteer events in the area," says Ms. Morrison. "They know who we are and they do tap into us a fair bit and I don't know if you would get that in the larger places."

In the end, Mr. Conforti knows he made the right choice. He is in his last year, but thanks to a co-op three years ago through his automotive business degree and continuing relationship with the Audi dealership he worked with, he has bright prospects at graduation.

"I know I'm prepared," says Mr. Conforti, "because I found that the knowledge I learned at school helped me perform at the dealership."

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