Human resources 101

Undergraduate programs offer flexibility, essential knowledge for career in HR
By Lynn Sully
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/22/2013

Human resources professionals enter their profession from many different avenues. Obtaining a specialized degree in HR is one way students can distinguish themselves by gaining a solid grounding in business along with focused human resources knowledge to hit the ground running.

“Smart companies understand the strategic role of HR,” says Bob Fournier, academic co-ordinator at Athabasca University’s Faculty of Business in Alberta. “They’re seeking graduates who combine the broad-based knowledge of a degree in management with the specialization that comes from courses in human resources.”

A bachelor of management degree with a major in human resources management can, for example, provide students with a foundation in business through core courses in management systems, ecommerce, economics and strategic management.

This foundation can be complemented by courses in human resources management, such as recruitment and selection, occupational health and safety, conflict and accommodation, and motivation and productivity.

And there are plenty of post-secondary options across Canada for HR professionals and students looking to brush up on their skills.

“Organizations are looking for knowledgeable HR professionals who can help them strengthen the bottom line — whether that’s improving productivity or reducing absenteeism,” says Fournier.

“They need people who understand everything from employment legislation to change management, and who see how their work in HR can help the organization make the most of its investment in people. Without that perspective, organizations are just leaving money on the table.”

Bringing together business, HR knowledge

Jamie Albrecht is two courses away from completing her degree at Athabasca University and she says the business courses have given her a deeper, more holistic perspective on how globalization and policy decisions affect businesses worldwide.

“The governance and policy class I’m currently taking, and the global economics class I recently finished, have been very interesting, particularly since I work for a global engineering construction company,” says Albrecht, a Calgary-based HR specialist in recruitment at Fluor.

The required HR courses also directly connect to her work.

“I’ve been able to take what I’ve learned in the occupational health and safety class to bring new ideas to our weekly safety meetings,” she says. “I’m adding value to the discussions.”

Tammy Anderson, an Edmonton-based project administrator at energy services company Intricate Group, is three courses away from her degree at Athabasca. Although she is not working within the company’s HR department, she has been asked for her thoughts on pay schedules, performance planning and safety programs.

“All of my courses have been relevant in previous jobs as well as in my current position,” she says. “This includes an elective in women’s studies that helped me in my prior job as an HR specialist with a vocational rehabilitation agency to my human resources classes, which have given me tools I am using in my current job as well as in all my daily interactions with others.”

Time commitments vary from course to course

Many students can transfer credits they had already received from other post-secondary institutions and often they hold down full-time jobs while they take the remaining courses in their degree programs. And with a distance education model, students are in control of scheduling their courses and working at their own pace.

At Athabasca, there is a six-month time limit in which students must complete each three-credit course. If students follow the suggested schedule, they should be on track for completing assignments and projects in a timely fashion.

“If a student is motivated, they can finish a course very quickly. But there are extension options if needed,” says Fournier. “These courses should fit into your life, not the other way around.”

Fournier’s advice rings true for Danielle Commandeur, a student with six courses left in her degree. She completed two years at Grande Prairie Regional College in Alberta and then transferred to Athabasca for the final two years of her program.

Between working in administration full time at the County of Grande Prairie Sportsplex and raising a family, Commandeur would be hard-pressed to attend a traditional university with regularly scheduled in-person classes.

“I’ve found that to succeed in this environment, you really need to set up a defined schedule and stick to it,” she says. “Each week, while my daughter is at hockey practice, I head to the library for two-and-a-half hours of studying.”

Some classes require a greater time commitment but it’s “impossible to know that until you’re actually in the class,” says Commandeur.

Students can spend anywhere from two to 10 hours per week studying and working on assignments. Albrecht, for example, took two weeks off in the summer to work on a finance course that she knew would require a greater investment of time.

“Not everyone is cut out for the individualized study aspect of this program,” says Fournier. “But it’s a great choice for students who are self-motivated and interested. Students can complete this program in the same time frame as at a conventional university — or they can do it faster or slower, if that’s what works for them.”

Specialized degree can open doors

Both Anderson and Commandeur completed the three-year program in business management but are continuing on for a fourth year to gain a major in human resources management.

“The jobs I’m interested in require the CHRP (Certified Human Resources Professional) designation and I’ll need the four-year degree to get that,” says Anderson.

And Albrecht, who is interested in moving into a more generalist or advisory position working in assignments and policy, says Fluor supports her educational advancement.

“I have been working in human resources for the last six years, and I was promoted to my current position in November because I’m close to getting my degree,” she says.

A human resources major is a versatile and practical path to launching a career in the profession, says Fournier.

“If you’re interested in human resources, getting the HR degree only makes sense,” he says. “You gain a strong foundation in business with a specialization in human resources. And these courses are great — they’re designed by some of the leading experts in the field.”

Lynn Sully is a partner at Inscript in Vancouver. For more information about the Faculty of Business at Athabasca University, email or call (800) 561-4650.

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