Skip to main content
leadership lab

Sonya Meloff is co-founder of the Sales Talent Agency.

Canadian university and college students want to be entrepreneurs, marketers, teachers ... the list goes on.

One thing is becoming clearer than ever: If we want the youth unemployment rate in this country to decrease – it's double the national unemployment rate of 6.2 per cent at 12.4 – we need to realistically prepare students for the job market by opening their eyes to a career that they may never have previously considered.

Throughout my 10 years as a sales recruiter, CEOs and business leaders have expressed how eager they are to hire talented, passionate college or university graduates to sales roles. This desire lines up directly with a study from the Conference Board of Canada, which consistently lists sales as one of the top-five highest-in-demand specializations.

So why are we not preparing Canadian students for the jobs that are out there?

Positions in sales at flourishing companies, particularly at up-and-coming technology companies, are not getting filled for two main reasons:

  • Not many students dream of being in sales when they grow up, because of misconceptions about the industry (used-car sales, commission-only, door-to-door, etc.).
  • Select new grads applying to these roles are not qualified. There is a big gap between what students are learning in the classroom versus the needs of employers.

Sales people are capable of climbing the corporate ladder. My business partner Jamie Scarborough and I have found that about 20 per cent of the CEOs we encounter have come from sales positions.

All of these discoveries inspired us to take on a big project in 2014: the Great Canadian Sales Competition (GCSC), an initiative aimed at shedding light on the opportunities in B2B sales with the help of faculty members at universities and colleges across the country. We wrapped up the third and largest year GCSC in March, as more than 2,100 students learned about a field that likely never crossed their mind. Of the contestants surveyed, only 11 per cent of them initially wanted to pursue a sales career. After participation in the GCSC, 98 per cent would considering it.

Over the past three years, our program has grown from just 215 submissions to 2,187. Educators are starting to realize that sales is a career that is not being highlighted to students; in turn, they are not being properly prepared for modern job opportunities.

Bruce Anthony is the program head of the Professional Sales program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), a postsecondary institution offering a Professional Sales Diploma. He says the program originally had 18 students enrolled in 1980, and today graduates an average of 50 students each year, with three companies hiring per one student enrolled. Moreover, they teach selling skills in other programs, including Engineering.

Since 2014, we have built awareness on campuses and spoken with college administrators across Canada. But these efforts would be much more successful if they were mirrored by program directors who can prioritize the creation of programs that focus on sales education.

Another advocate is Linda Traill, a professor and co-ordinator of the B2B Corporate Account Management Graduate Certificate at Centennial College in Toronto. She's also the brains behind the Marketing: Corporate Account Management program advisory committee (PAC) at the School of Business. She's aiming to raise the profile of the sales profession through a graduate certificate program and by exposing students to opportunities in the field.

Derek Spence, professor at the School of Business and Management at Niagara College (Ontario), is researching what employers are looking for in future employees and how schools can better prepare students for their future. He says that once students go through the program, about 60 to 70 per cent of graduates land sales roles. Their opinions about the career shift positively from when they first start because they understand the opportunities. Our goal is to ensure that students across the country are landing jobs right after graduation – jobs they are passionate about, in organizations they can excel in.

Every post-secondary institution, particularly with business courses, should implement some type of B2B sales course or project element to their programs to pull the curtain back on this often misunderstood field.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

Mark Mortensen of INSEAD discusses his findings about teamwork and how knowing what teams others are on can improve workflow

Special to Globe and Mail Update

Interact with The Globe