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Michael Wilson is taking an EMBA at Haskayne School of Business in Calgary to help him pivot careers. 'I realized I cannot progress in my career any further without more credentials,' he says.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Over the past three decades, Michael Wilson has carried out several successful career pivots: from stock trader to plumber, equipment supervisor and then construction company general manager.

But in 2016, with the Calgary economy in an oil-sector slump, he voluntarily left his mid-manager job to return to school for his next career move.

Then 46, the married father of two teenagers dipped into savings to enrol in a $69,000 executive master of business administration (EMBA) program at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. At the time, he says, “I realized I cannot progress in my career any further without more credentials.”

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Next month he wraps up the two-year program, saying it has made him “more efficient, more competent and more confident” than when he signed up. He intends to go into operations management.

His decision to pay his own way for his mid-career business degree illustrates a growing trend in the global EMBA market: the rise of the self-financing student.

A recent survey by the Executive MBA Council, a non-profit organization of business schools from more than 30 countries, including Canada, found this year more than 45 per cent of students paid their own tuition, up from 40 per cent in 2014, without reimbursement from employers. The proportion of those receiving a company subsidy shrank to about 20 per cent this year, down from 24.6 per cent four years ago, though global enrolment generally has held steady.

“The demand is there even though more students are self-funding themselves,” says Michael Desiderio, executive director of the California-based council. “It speaks to the value of the degree.”

Haskayne dean Jim Dewald sees the same self-funding trend at his school, which offers two EMBA cohorts a year. "We have seen growth in the category of people putting themselves through the program,” he says. “It’s where we have seen the biggest growth for sure.”

In 2018, 76 mid-career students were enrolled in two cohorts, up from 60 two years ago.

At Haskayne, teams of students study as a cohort, attending on-campus, day-long classes on alternate Fridays and Saturdays over two years. Between formal lectures, students meet in-person or online to work on projects, attend sessions with industry leaders and travel abroad, this year to Hong Kong and Vietnam.

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Mr. Dewald says the cohort model ensures a tight-knit atmosphere, with at least one pair from each class deciding to work together after graduation.

Mr. Wilson, a big believer in the value of education, pursued an online credential (unrelated to Haskayne) while he worked as a plumber and later a maintenance and equipment supervisor in Fort McMurray, until 2013. But he only had an almost-completed degree from his undergraduate days and felt intimidated when he returned to a university classroom of 40 mid-career professionals in early 2017.

The nerves quickly dissipated, he says, because in the first week of the program all EMBA students are required to study, work and live together at a hotel on campus, bonding over case studies. “By the end of the week, we each knew each other’s strengths and what role each would take in the [team] group,” he recalls. “We were able to effectively tear down cases and get them done.”

Like Mr. Wilson, Toronto-based Marina Di Pancrazio is a strong advocate of life-long learning. After saving for several years (and tapping a low-cost education line of credit from her bank), the director of sales services for Disney ABC Home Entertainment and Television Distribution signed up last year for a 16-month $102,000 executive MBA offered in Toronto by Kingston-based Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.

“For me, it was about personal growth,” she says. “I always wanted to do my MBA.”

She received no financial assistance from Disney, but credits her company with providing encouragement and support, including time off work to attend full-day classes on alternate Fridays and Saturdays.

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As she nears completion of her degree, Ms. Di Pancrazio says her investment already is paying dividends.

“I think it has made me a more efficient thinker in all areas of my life,” she says, especially enthusiastic about the program’s team-based approach to learning. “It has made me more confident in my knowledge.”

She urges prospective candidates to investigate programs that suit their career interests and their personal life. “Do your homework [on programs],” she says. “And enlist your family because you need to get buy-in.”

Other EMBA trends

The growing presence of self-funded students is just one sign of disruptions transforming the global EMBA market.

Schools increasingly are adopting technology for electronic delivery of course materials, classroom video conferencing and even for marketing programs directly to students, according to the EMBA council survey. For example, 56 per cent of survey participants produced YouTube videos pitched at individual learners, up from 44.7 per cent in 2014.

“Technology is having a positive impact,” says Mr. Desiderio. “Anything we can do to enhance the learning environment is good for the EMBA space.”

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His council also identifies growth in specialty EMBA programs, especially in health care.

Three years ago, McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton introduced an executive MBA in digital transformation, recruiting one-quarter of the 30-person class from health care.

“As in any industry, health care is being buffeted by forces of disruption, new technology, the pace of change and the expectations of patients,” says Michael Hartmann, executive director of the niche EMBA. The 15-month program starts with two months of online courses, followed by four two-week residential modules held in Canada and Silicon Valley. In between face-to-face classes, teams of students work online on projects.

Back in Calgary, and on the cusp of graduating, Mr. Wilson is poised for his next career pivot, this time into operations management.

“I realized that this [degree] is what I need to fill in my credentials,” he says. “And it gives me a tool-kit that allows me to move forward.”

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