Mastering the art of human resources

New degree is attracting top HR professionals while intriguing employers
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/17/2006

After she was restructured out of her job as the vice-president of human resources at CIBC, Carroll Hern decided it was the perfect opportunity to freshen up her HR knowledge and skills. About the same time, Laura Polsinelli was finishing up her undergraduate degree in human resources at Toronto’s York University and wanted to gain an edge on other candidates and take the next step in continuing her career in HR.

Both women, in very different stages of their careers, ended up in the same masters of human resources management (MHRM) program at Toronto’s York University where they, along with 15 other students, graduated last month.

The degree typically attracts two types of students, said Monica Belcourt, the program’s director.

“The first is the typical MBA student with high marks in an HR-related undergraduate degree with limited working experience. The other group is the typical executive MBA student who got their degree eight or 10 years ago, not necessarily in an HR-related field, but who has significant and interesting HR experience,” said Belcourt. “They bring a lot to the classroom. Between both groups of students, they know a lot about HR.”

The MHRM program gives students the chance to learn from those with work experience. That’s one of the program’s most attractive features, said new graduate Chris Kirkpatrick.

“As much as the learning you got from all the professors, you were learning from all the other individuals in the classroom too,” he said.

Dan McGarry, a 20-year HR veteran, said the discussions with classmates helped him solve some of the challenges he was facing as the senior HR professional for Toronto-based manufacturer Global Wood Group.

“I was able to take some of the problems we were having and research them and have people talk about them in the classes,” he said. “It was like getting free consulting.”

Kirkpatrick, who during the course of the program became the Ontario manager of human resources for the sales and marketing group of Molson, a Toronto-based brewery, also used the course work to research issues he was facing. He did his thesis on how employee engagement and productivity is linked to trust and identification with the organization and how that trust and identification is shaken during a merger — something that was happening at Molson as it merged with Coors.

“I found that doing the literature review, working with one of the professors here and then being in a position to actually apply it in real life in my organization showed commitment and loyalty to my organization and accelerated my learning,” said Kirkpatrick.

The York University program, which started in January 2004, is Canada’s only executive-MBA style masters of human resource management and has seen 21 graduates since its inception. Kirkpatrick said the degree’s uniqueness helps graduates stand out from the pack.

“This was a program that helped distinguish me from everybody else,” said Kirkpatrick. “I think (the degree) was one of the things that got my foot in the door.”

The degree is very appealing to many employers, said Belcourt. Even before graduation, Hern became the vice-president of HR at Burlington, Ont.-based Cumis Group Insurance and Polsinelli got a position as an HR generalist with Toronto Dominion Bank.

Several students said recruiters and managers are more interested in the degree and the courses the students took than their work experience.

“They feel they got the job offer because of the master’s degree,” said Belcourt.

One recruiter told Belcourt that students coming out of the MHRM program were more knowledgeable in HR than most of the MBA graduates.

The chance to take courses that are very HR-specific was what attracted both Global Wood Group’s McGarry and Rupa Prakash, who has five years of HR experience, mostly in recruiting, to the program.

McGarry had been accepted into an MBA program, but withdrew once he found out about the MHRM.

“Why do an MBA with one or two HR courses when I could do something that was totally devoted to HR?” he said.

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