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Christine Ung and John Wiltshire, President of the Canadian Marketing Association, are photographed at the CMA office on June 18, 2019. CMA plans to test its online program this fall at half a dozen college and university campuses before a full roll-out next year.Fred Lum

Third-year Ryerson University student Christine Ung aspires to a career in marketing, ideally designing user-friendly websites and apps.

But how do postsecondary graduates with little professional experience break into a highly competitive industry?

“There are not a lot of junior positions available,” says Ms. Ung, who graduates in 2021 with an undergraduate business commerce degree, a marketing specialization and a minor in psychology. “You are up against people who have a lot more experience than you, so how are you able to showcase what you are able to do?”

In recognition of the hurdles, the Canadian Marketing Association, with support from the Royal Bank of Canada, is developing a new, largely online tool for college and university students to develop networking and other soft skills and to build a portfolio to show prospective employers.

“We have always had the professional development for mid-career and later-career [individuals] filled out,” says CMA president and chief executive John Wiltshire, of current services to association members. “We had a gap in our ability to reach into postsecondary institutions and help students start their professional development off right in terms of developing their career in marketing.”

CMA plans to test its online program this fall at half a dozen college and university campuses before a full roll-out next year. The free learning modules, completed by students on their own time, include an introduction to varied careers in marketing, video sessions on honing soft skills and an opportunity to work on problems submitted by CMA members who then provide feedback on the proposed solution.

Mr. Wiltshire says the new program, called “CMA NXT,” was sparked by anecdotal reports from association members who complained about the readiness of recent graduates.

“Often, a student will come out [of college or university] not really knowing the job they are going into and whether it really fits their interest level and their knowledge level and what they are really good at,” he says. “Sometimes there are mismatches.”

As well, he says, students understandably lack confidence when seeking their first full-time job. In interviews, he asks, “How do they translate what they have done [in school] in a way that has meaning for prospective employers?” He says the soft-skills component of the new program aims to help students prepare for their first job interview.

“What we are not doing is becoming a hiring agency,” cautions Mr. Wiltshire. “At the end of the day, it will be up to the students to develop their own networks. ...We will coach them on how to do that.”

Kathy Dumanski, chair of the School of Marketing at George Brown College and a member of CMA’s education committee, says the new program “is an added benefit to what the postsecondary institutions are trying to do.”

Schools like hers offer a menu of supports for students to make the transition from the classroom to careers. At George Brown, for example, students examine case studies, participate in real projects for industry clients and sometimes gain hands-on experience through internships and co-op placements.

CMA NXT, she says, “provides another opportunity for students to hear not just from their teachers but to hear from industry professionals on how to network, the importance of networking, what career opportunities are like and the skills that are required.”

The opportunity to meet industry contacts with an appreciation for the job-hunting challenges for recent graduates appealed to Alex Lee, a second-year business and criminology student at the University of Western Ontario. He is eyeing a future job as a marketing consultant.

Last year, through his student marketing association, he attended a session by CMA officials seeking feedback on the design of the CMA NXT project.

Mr. Lee says students often face an experience gap without the necessary qualifications to attract preferred employers. Without a way to show off skills, he says it is hard to compete even for entry-level jobs.

This spring, by his own admission, he was slow to send out applications for summer internship positions. He contacted 100 potential employers and only three responded, but he eventually landed a marketing internship at a non-profit organization.

“It is not the challenge of getting ‘a’ job but getting a relevant job in your field, in this case marketing,” he says. “If I tried to get a [non-marketing] job at McDonald’s, I could do that. But I want to get a good job and those are the ones where you feel the experience gap.”

He says he hopes to participate in the CMA NXT program this fall, as it offers a route to network with marketing industry employers. As well, he says, “it gives you some credibility because of the online projects you can complete,” with the potential for industry feedback.

“If you can show that [work] to an employer it is a lot better than saying you are a university student and you have experience in a [campus] club,” says Mr. Lee.

Like Mr. Lee, Ms. Ung plans to participate in the test run for the program this fall. “I think it is really cool,” she says. Not only will she be in the first cohort of students, she says, but will have “front-facing” opportunities to connect with marketing industry contacts.