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Niche business programs: Standing out in the crowd

As part of her Entrepreneurship specialization, Mount Royal University BBM grad Laura Wettstein had the unique advantage of seeing a business through from start to finish.

Chris Bolin/chris bolin The Globe and Mail

While growing up on a farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Andrea Mlinarevic didn't spend all her time on the typical childhood activities of video games and TV, opting instead to run her own fruit stand.

Though this early venture introduced her to business basics like pricing and inventory, it was marketing her products' unique selling points, such as the health benefits of fruit, that ultimately captured her imagination. "I was only 6 at the time, but I was already practising the four Ps of marketing: Product, Price, Promotion and Place. I grew to learn that marketing is what I truly enjoy, and it's what I'm good at."

Ms. Mlinarevic stuck with her passion and, a decade and a half later, earned a BBA with a marketing concentration from Brock University in 2010. That degree (combined with her previous experience marketing produce, no doubt) helped her land a job shortly after graduating as a marketing co-ordinator with NorCliff Farms, where it's her job to raise awareness about new "super veggie" fiddleheads.

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The path to employment isn't as direct for every business grad, though. With tens of thousands of students graduating from 57 business schools across Canada each year and entry-level hiring levels still recovering from the recent economic downturn, it can be difficult to stand out with a standard business degree.

Claudia Labal majored in economics and management science during her B.Comm. degree at Ryerson University, but since graduating in 2008 she has worked as a custodian, an administrative assistant and a barista before landing her current job as a bank teller across the street from the coffee shop where she worked. "Everyone wants experience, but no one wants to give me a chance to learn. Where do I fit in?"

Given the quality of her post-secondary education, Ms. Labal says she's disappointed at her lack of progress so far. "I never thought I would be at the bottom of the chain two years after graduating."

But Ms. Labal isn't alone. Termed "underemployment," this phenomenon means that more grads than ever are tending bar or answering phones instead of working in jobs related to their degrees, mostly due to a stagnant job market and an oversupply of students in those fields.

A Canadian Policy Research Networks study released in 2008 revealed that Canada ranked highest in underemployment among the 16 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with 23.7 per cent of Canadians under the age of 25 feeling overqualified for their jobs.

To avoid joining the growing cohort of overqualified and un- or underemployed graduates, some university students are turning to sector-specific business programs that develop considerably more specialized expertise than the average business degree with a major such as accounting, human resources or finance.

Industries such as green business, sports marketing, and fashion management, just to name a few, are fast gaining popularity, while programs focusing on e-business, hospitality and tourism, and international business have become staples in many business schools.

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These programs turn the idea of a business degree inside out - instead of forcing students to major in marketing or economics, for example, they learn about marketing and economics, as well as all other aspects of doing business in a particular industry or sector.

Rapid advances in technology and a trend toward niche business operations are forcing companies to hire people with specialized expertise, says Jason Hamilton, a recent B.Comm. graduate with a specialization in entrepreneurship from the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business who now works as the director of marketing at a student travel company. "General isn't as good any more. It's one thing to hire someone who understands business, but if I need someone to create the best social media strategies, I'm going after someone who knows exactly how to do that."

Toronto Dominion Bank recruitment manager Nancy Moulday, who puts this kind of hiring strategy into practice on a daily basis, says she's noticed an increase in the number of agriculture and real estate-focused business programs in recent years at the 25 Canadian business schools she recruits from for TD's agricultural and real estate services. In her opinion, that's a very good thing.

"It produces students who have an understanding of the core fundamentals of business - accounting, finance, etcetera - but they also have an appreciation of how that business impacts farming." That means TD doesn't necessarily have to train a basic knowledge of the agriculture industry into its new hires or recruit exclusively from a very small pool of business grads who also grew up on a farm.

"With these specific degrees, they get everything . . . plus that extra thing which indicates they are specifically interested in agriculture or real estate. So I know those people are already interested in that business and that's very helpful when I'm looking at recruiting."

It's that comprehensive outlook on how to operate a business that Frances Gunn, a professor in the retail management program at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, sees as the main attraction of these programs for students and the employers who hire them.

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"Any type of business model that works with customers can benefit from a retail focus, so they will have the benefits of a broad business perspective, which they can apply in a number of different contexts. It's relevant to a whole range of business applications," she says.

"Niche business programs create differentiation in a sea of qualified graduates," says Christie Oreskovich, a hospitality and tourism management student also at Ryerson. "We're all looking for something to set us apart when entering the workforce, and specialized degrees allow us to focus our education on unique sectors but still be able to apply it to other industries, as well."

For some, the biggest draw is the chance to make a "soft" entry into their field of choice. Most niche programs include a co-op component, giving students crucial industry access and experience. As part of her Entrepreneurship specialization, Mount Royal University BBM grad Laura Wettstein had the unique advantage of seeing a business through from start to finish.

Students find value in "real world experience that pushes their limits," she says. "Trust me, the best way to understand how something is done is to do it. When your warehouse's overhead door drops onto your van and you can't get shipments in or out - you have to solve that yourself!"

As part of her program's "direct field studies requirement, Ms. Wettstein oversaw her parents' company's operations for an entire semester. She is currently working as a sales and communications specialist at microstock photography agency Fotolia and credits the time spent at her parents' company for teaching her the sales skills she needs to succeed at her job.

Ms. Gunn says she's received feedback from employers saying students and graduates from sector-specific programs like retail and hospitality and tourism management have a more realistic idea of their career direction, are better prepared to work with emerging technologies, and already have some experience with the needs of the industry, thanks to the internship component of the programs - a common feature of these sector-specific degrees.

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From Ms. Moulday's perspective as a recruiter with more than 23 years of experience, students who have co-op, internship or summer job experience in their industry of choice almost always have an edge over peers with no work experience. "Any program with a co-op or internship is attractive because the students have that work experience. They've transitioned from school to work and they have an understanding of working in a corporate culture, whether it's a small, medium or large business."

Small class sizes and professors with relevant - and recent - industry experience and contacts also give students in these programs the opportunity to immediately create a network within their desired field, setting them apart from the average business grad.

"They benefit from the experience and the insights of practitioners who influence the programs through their involvement," Ms. Gunn says, including faculty, guest speakers, and community members on the programs' advisory boards and councils.

A selection of niche programs

Agribusiness, University of Saskatchewan

This Bachelor of Science degree combines science, agricultural economics and business courses so students can learn about all aspects of "agribusiness," including business management, marketing, finance and sales, as well as the legal and institutional elements that affect the industry.

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Environment and Business, University of Waterloo

This unique co-op program - the only one of its kind in North America - includes nearly two years of paid work experience. Students graduate with a Bachelor of Environmental Studies degree and could go on to develop plans for alternative energy or help reduce the environmental impact of corporations.

Hospitality and Tourism Management, Cape Breton University

With courses covering food and nutrition, guest service computer applications, meetings and convention management, tourism law and more, as well as two compulsory paid six-month internships, graduates of this three-year Bachelor of Hospitality and Tourism Management degree likely won't have trouble finding work in their field here in Canada or around the world.

International Bachelor of Business Administration (iBBA), York University, Schulich School of Business

At first glance, Schulich's iBBA looks like many other ordinary BBA programs in Canada, but it stands out because every student must become proficient in one of 13 languages - Arabic, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian or Spanish - and spend at least one academic term studying abroad, preparing students for a career in international business long before they start applying for jobs.

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Bachelor of Accounting and Financial Management, University of Waterloo

While most business programs allow students to major in accounting or finance, this unique professional program is designed to prepare students to become CAs, CFAs or CMAs. Depending on the certification you're after, the program guarantees between 12 to 16 months of qualifying work experience through co-op work terms with either businesses, government entities and not-for-profit organizations, or public accounting firms.

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