HR professionals don’t grow on trees. And yet, the process for shaping future HR specialists at many Canadian post-secondary institutions seems to support the notion that it’s possible to produce a yearly crop of HR professionals, who are equipped to stride directly into HR roles as soon as they step off of campus. But has academia properly prepared them to land in the hard, cold, real world of business?

A recent Randstad survey showed 56.25 % of HR executives think current HR programs don’t prepare students for professional life. In order to be valued, productive contributors to the success of organizations, students need skills that help them strategize effectively. This is increasingly critical in today’s business climate where demands on organizations are global and economies fluctuate dramatically. 

I’m not painting all academic institutions with the same broad-brush strokes, nor do I mean in any way to be disrespectful to their committed, dedicated instructors. In many educational institutions, certain sector programs and instruction are relevant and current. But in spite of their best efforts, there still exists a chasm between how graduates are trained and educated, and what the world of business expects and demands.


the business environment is in constant flux and we need to adapt

It’s said you can’t step into the same river twice, for it'll never be exactly the same river ever again. The same can be said for business. It’s time to overhaul the training HR students receive in order to properly and effectively prepare them to enter the world of business, which is, like rushing water, a moving target in a state of constant flux and evolution, driven by tangible and intangible tides and currents.

Change depends on the triumvirate of post-secondary institutions, business organizations and students partnered cohesively towards a common goal. Each has a role to play in ensuring students are properly prepared to enter the world of work and hit the ground running. 

the role of academic institutions 

When I interview business leaders and poll students, I hear a common refrain: training programs aren’t reflective of reality because information and its delivery aren’t current. This raises serious questions; the answers lie with the institutions and educators themselves. 

  • Are universities keeping up with changes in how business works in this technology-driven, international world of work? If not, why not?
  • Are teaching materials outdated? Does the responsibility for refreshed, updated resources lie with the instructor or the institution?
  • Have instructors spent too long in the classroom rooted in the past or are they specialists - business practitioners bringing fresh, relevant experience and exciting, innovative case studies to the role? 
  • Does course content stimulate, challenge and support student learning, specifically training HR students to analyze, conceptualize and measure data - critical skills in the business world?
  • Do institutions provide appropriate and timely co-op programming that would not only provide hands-on practical work experience but in many cases, opportunities for future employment?
  • Is instruction about talent acquisition up to date?

the role of organizations

I work with several organizations to prepare for the approaching war for talent, when the largest cohort of retirees in Canada’s work history retires, taking with it irreplaceable skills, experience, and knowledge. For these organizations, success will lie in developing a workforce whose ability to think for itself is equal to, or exceeds, its functionality and ability to execute. 

Many organizations find themselves operating as a ‘finishing school’ of sorts to HR grads by providing them with the practical experience and current information they lack. Business leaders report onboarding becomes problematic when graduates lack even basic concepts of business, how it works and how an organization makes money, as well as critical thinking and application skills – most valued in the changing world of work.

Organizations play an important role in the development of HR specialists by investing in their training and development in the following ways:

  • create and offer effective co-op placement programs in partnership with educational institutions that engage students in problem-solving through living case studies. In this way, students are challenged to develop their analytic and decision-making skills. Encouraging autonomy will build their confidence and self-esteem. 
  • develop a mentorship program for new HR hires. Include mentors from all departments, segments, and levels of business. You won’t be simply providing support, but also real-time context for how HR fits into the organization and creates impact, something I call big picture, cause and effect relevance.
  • challenge new HR hires to develop their creativity. Currently, it seems HR students are taught to think vertically. Creativity is a big part of lateral thinking - outside-the-box problem solving which, in turn, becomes part of the organization’s business and work culture.
  • beyond demonstrating the ‘what’ of your organization, offer instruction on the ‘why’.
  • create a strong talent acquisition team. Now and increasingly, this will be an important competitive advantage for all businesses.

the role of students

I frequently speak with recent university grads as part of Randstad’s university outreach program. What I see is a new breed of grad, the antithesis of a passive, empty vessel into which knowledge is poured. The HR students I meet today want to be engaged and stimulated by their instructors and course materials. They want to graduate feeling confident and prepared for whatever the world of work holds for them, including leadership roles. Yet, when polled, many said their training left them somewhat ambivalent, which undermined their confidence. 

Generally, HR grads report they lacked training in generational challenges, multicultural management, big data management, and understanding of other functions within an organization (i.e. marketing, sales, finance, etc.) and how the pieces worked together. 
Others feel they lack the tools to exert and extend their influence in the workplace. Grads were split in how much university contributed to their ability to think critically, analyze and predict.

Few graduates had knowledge of a war for talent, what it is and how to proactively manage processes to reduce its risks. They don’t hear the term until they’ve already arrived in the marketplace, which makes them feel unprepared.  They feel such knowledge will help them align their attitude and approach to work with what’s expected in the field, and give them a step up towards proving themselves and building experience.  

Students need to add their voice to the discourse around improving training and education; to do so, they need to:

  • expose themselves to current and future trends information by joining associations, organizations and networks; if none exist, create them;
  • increase their ability to think critically by asking questions, participating in lectures, bringing important issues to light with professors and institutions, and interacting with their peers and educators;
  • find ways to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical applications, through part-time jobs, volunteer work, and interaction with teams and leaders in their own and other faculties;
  • make sure they understand basic concepts of how organizations make money, where organizational gaps exist and apply creative problem solving to filling those gaps.

how can we drive change?

It’s more critical than ever that HR training accurately reflects today’s world of work at the same time as it prepares students for the future. To that end, universities need to:

  • update their HR-focused programs to include an emphasis on international business literacy and global competition;
  • include more database and Big Data management and information technology to more effectively manage people analytics; 
  • change the emphasis from theoretical training to more practical cases. This is how students build collaborative skills; it’s what equips them to manage political and cultural diversity.
  • make sure to update their talent acquisition curriculum; it’s definitely going to be a competitive advantage for all organizations and it influences capital importance in the market. 

The function of HR is changing as more organizations realize its value in aligning all services within a company so they head in the same direction. HR professionals play a critical role in supporting executive decisions and helping organizations execute and achieve their objectives. The presence and voice of HR in the boardroom are essential to ensure the human impact is considered in all major decisions. Everything changes. HR professionals need to be better equipped to be active participants and promoters of that change.

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