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Ideally, e-commerce company Shopify Inc. would like to hire hundreds of new graduates as sales people over the next five years to support and expand its rapidly growing client base.

"The challenge is … kids in college and university aren't thinking of sales as a career," says Loren Padelford, general manager of the Shopify Plus platform for emerging brands and high-volume businesses.

"Every company I know is desperate for sales people and they just can't find [enough of] them."

So Shopify – along with such companies as Google Canada, IBM Corp., and Dell Canada – is working with Vancouver-based recruitment firm Sales Talent Agency to sell students on the concept of sales as a desirable and sustainable career choice.

Through their sponsorship of the recruitment agency's Great Canadian Sales Competition, now in its third year, the employers hope to raise campus awareness of the enormous need, opportunities and interesting work in business-to-business sales. (For instance, Shopify's e-commerce clients range from startups to big names such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Tesla Motors Inc., Playboy Enterprises Inc., Proctor & Gamble Co. and General Electric Co.)

Jamie Scarborough, founding partner at Sales Talent Agency, said in an interview that the Great Canadian Sales Competition attracted 215 contestants from 36 universities and colleges in its first year. It expects to attract 3,000 from 80 campuses this year. The contest is open to any interested college or university students, who have until Jan. 8 to submit a 30 to 90 second video pitch "on something they are passionate about."

A team of judges from the 20 sponsoring companies will view the videos and select 25 competitors for the final round.

It's a great source of emerging talent for the employers, Mr. Padelford said in an interview, and a terrific professional opportunity for students who might not have been previously aware of the career prospects.

The Conference Board of Canada said in a recent report that sales and marketing have been among the top five specializations in highest demand for the past decade.

"If you are good at sales, you will have a career for life," Mr. Padelford said. However, it is a specialization that seems to fly under the radar and is not widely taught at colleges and universities.

"From our perspective, we hire for the things we can't teach and we teach everything else. I can't teach you to work hard, to be smart, to be creative. I can't teach you to be competitive, you either are or you aren't," he said. "But if you have those things, it doesn't really matter what degree you have. I can teach you how to make a call, how to do a presentation, how to do research …"

IBM Canada has taken a grow-your-own approach through an intensive in-house professional development program for "new sellers." The initiative, called the Summit Program, involves several months of classroom work, product knowledge, practice sales sessions and coaching from more seasoned colleagues. Participants are taught the importance of gaining an understanding of what the client is trying to accomplish and working collaboratively with the client to find "the right solution … as opposed to just trying to go in and sell a product," said Nancy Briglio, IBM's director of commercial business.

Ali Abassi, a marketing graduate from Capilano University in North Vancouver, landed a job at IBM after making it to the final round in last year's sales competition.

"We got to network with executives with some of the largest companies in Canada that are doing some of the coolest things. That's where I met the team from IBM [and] they told me about the summit program.

"I was intrigued by the amount of resources they put towards training and hiring new graduates … so like any other sales

individual, I was extremely persistent and followed up multiple times to get myself an interview," said the 26-year-old Mr. Abassi, who works out of IBM's Vancouver office.

While Mr. Abassi has found his calling, Mr. Scarborough said most young people don't come out of university and college saying "I want to be a sales person."

If their only experience with sales has been precarious part-time retail work or "ShamWow commercials," students are going to have a negative perception, Mr. Scarborough said.

"They don't recognize that business-to-business sales are just so different.

"We are going to try to improve the public relations of sales … I want them to differentiate, I want them to appreciate the fact that sales is a very wide spectrum."

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