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Cameco’s Cigar Lake mine manager Rick Forbes walks down one of the mine shafts at the Cigar Lake mine site .

David Stobbe / Reuters

Over the past 20 years in the mining industry, engineer Tamara Brown saw no reason to add a graduate business degree to her credentials.

But now the vice-president of investor relations for Toronto-based Primero Mining Corp. has a new option: a mining-focused executive MBA at the University of British Columbia that would enable her to continue working while earning the specialty degree.

"It is essential for me, if I am going to take time and money away from family and my day job, that it gives me something that combines mining operations and business," says Ms. Brown, who expects to sign up for the new program this fall.

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For mid-career professionals like Ms. Brown, executive MBAs are an attractive alternative to a conventional full-time MBA, as they offer flexibility (usually a blend of in-class and online learning), academic rigour and industry-relevant content without having to step away from one's day job.

"I am bullish and positive on this space," says Michael Desiderio, executive director of the U.S.-based Executive MBA Council, whose global membership of 232 schools with 332 programs in 40 countries is at an all-time high. "We are going to continue to see this market be very attractive."

Most EMBA programs offer general management education, but two new degrees in Canada are sector-specific.

One is the executive MBA in Strategic Mining Management (tuition of $70,400) to be offered this September by UBC's Sauder School of Business and the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering, with financial and in-kind industry support.

The 21-month program combines four residential components, each up to one week in length, in Vancouver (twice), Santiago and London. In between face-to-face classes, students work online independently and in teams on industry-related case studies and issues.

Another new program, also developed with industry support, is an EMBA in digital transformation (tuition $78,000) at McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business, starting in April of 2016. The 15-month program features four on-campus study components along with online activities and group projects. One module will be delivered in Silicon Valley, giving students access to some of the biggest names in digital commerce.

The DeGroote program is for mid-career managers who need to understand both the technical and strategic management dimensions of "big data."

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"As you go up the organizational hierarchy, digital literacy tends to decrease," observes Michael Hartmann, DeGroote's executive director of the EMBA. "But the ability [for senior executives] to stop what you want to do [also] increases."

Closing the divide between decision makers and the technically literate is a central theme of the program. "It's not just about big data, but how a company learns about innovation, invests in IT [information technology] and develops its digital capabilities," he says.

Meanwhile, established EMBA programs continually update content to stay current with industry needs.

For example, Queen's School of Business and Cornell University's Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management recently rebranded their joint EMBA (tuition $110,000 U.S.) to focus on doing business in the Americas.

"We have seen a tremendous opportunity to focus on the Americas, with students from South America, the United States and Canada," says Elspeth Murray, associate dean of MBA programs at Queen's. After a recent program review, the two schools revamped the 17-month program, adding an academic-style conference for students to present findings from a team-based global project, one of two projects required for the degree.

For many EMBAs, industry involvement is key. For example, UBC's mining EMBA responds, in part, to industry concern about attracting younger professionals to replace a greying cohort of senior executives.

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A recent study by Stratum International found that 40 per cent of Canada's mining work force is aged 50 or older, concluding "the demographic time bomb is real and most companies are not prepared for it."

The warning is not lost on Rohan Hazelton, vice-president of strategy for Goldcorp Inc., the lead industry partner for the mining EMBA. "It's not that there are no people, but there is a lack of bench strength at the senior mining level," he says.

The mining EMBA, he adds, "fits the need to enhance the skills and bench strength of people who can manage the companies."

With an expected initial cohort of 40 mid-career executives from companies in Canada and abroad, the mining EMBA offers industry case studies and a program-long "global villages" segment on environmental, social and corporate responsibility issues.

"Unfortunately, some Canadian mining companies have not had a stellar reputation around the world, and that is why they [industry executives] are pushing us to include this in the program," says Brian Bemmels, senior associate dean of academic programs at Sauder. "They want to do it better."

Scott Dunbar, department head of the Keevil institute, says the new EMBA seeks to equip those with finance and accounting training but little direct mining operation expertise – and vice versa – with leadership and other skills required for the C-suite.

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"A mining operation is multiple businesses in one," he notes. "Managing it strategically is something that some companies do well and some don't do well." He adds: "There is a need for people to understand all the aspects – and that it is highly interdisciplinary with multiple stakeholders."

Similarly, DeGroote's EMBA grew out of industry demand for future leaders with technical knowledge and strategy skills.

"The constant challenge we talk about is how do we find the leaders of tomorrow – the ones who are analytically savvy and who will be able to bring data and analytics together to help serve our clients," says Brian O'Donnell, chief data officer for Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

The bank is one of several corporate partners providing curriculum advice and other support for the DeGroote EMBA.

As for Ms. Brown, she remains hopeful about joining UBC's mining program this fall and moving closer to her ultimate goal – a leadership role in her industry.

EMBAs by the numbers (Source: Executive MBA Council)

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25.4 per cent

Percentage of women in EMBA programs

37.5

Average age of an EMBA student

13.7

Average years of work experience

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8.7

Average years of management experience

39.8

Percentage of students who self-finance their EMBA

24.6

Percentage of employers who fully fund an employee's EMBA education.

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