Colleges, HRPAO split on vision for CHRP

Despite vigorous protest from some members, Ontario’s HR association is going ahead with its plan to make a university degree a requirement for the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation by 2011.

After a spirited debate at the annual general meeting in February, members of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario voted 643 to 528 to ratify the 2002 acts of the board of directors, which included the decision to make a university degree a requirement for the designation.

Currently, anyone applying for the professional designation need only complete eight post-secondary HR courses from either a college or a university, though in recent years many candidates have come through college HR diploma programs.

Both critics and supporters of the change agree it will mean fewer students for the colleges. However the critics, particularly the colleges, insist the change will harm, not benefit, the profession and that it is being made without proper consultation or research to support it. The colleges are calling for a degree or equivalent combination of education and experience so that college graduates would still be entitled to the designation.

Gerard Mercer, dean of the school of business at Oakville-based Sheridan College, called the change a form of academic “elitism.” He said the board of the HRPAO undervalues college education and is out of step with the demands of most workplaces. Employers want HR people who can handle the basics of HR support, he said. The colleges have been satisfying employers on this level because they focus on delivering applied learning — teaching students how to use popular HR software programs for example. This gives students skills and competencies to start playing a role in the workplace immediately upon graduation.

“We think the way we teach HR is actually superior to what they are doing in the universities,” he said.

“They’re saying an arts degree in dance is better than a three-year diploma in HR,” said Mercer. “They have essentially damaged the profession; they have not helped the profession.”

Supporters of the new requirement agree the colleges are doing a fine job of producing graduates to staff HR departments but only at the entry level.

Anne Charette, a former president of HRPAO, current head of the Canadian Council of Human Resources Associations and a supporter of the change, denied the new requirement calls into question the value of college education. She said the designation should be for people striving to move into senior positions. “Not everyone that is in HR has to be a CHRP,” she said.

Research shows the business world is changing and so too is the profession, said Monica Belcourt, president of HRPAO and a professor of HR at York University. If HR professionals want to be considered for anything above entry level, they need a degree and since the CHRP would give someone a chance at senior-level HR positions, a degree should be a minimum requirement, she said.

Belcourt added that in the face of “overwhelming” evidence it would be “immoral” for HRPAO not to make a degree requirement mandatory.

Aside from external studies on degree demands in the business world for senior positions, the association surveyed members about what academic qualifications they look for when hiring for the HR department. For entry-level positions the demand for a university degree is not much more than the demand for a college diploma but for management positions and above the “overwhelming” majority want someone with a university degree, she said.

“It was entirely unethical to tell new candidates that they can have a career in HR. You can get an entry-level job without a university degree but you cannot have a career,” she said.

But Barb Marshall, dean of the Georgian College business and management program and chair of the Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology of Ontario (ACAATO) said that although they have asked for it, the colleges haven’t seen any evidence to support the change. The colleges were originally told the HRPAO survey results were inconclusive because of the low response rate. She also said one of the reasons the changes were allowed to move forward was that the colleges weren’t as involved in the consultation process as they should have been.

And while the change was passed at the general meeting Marshall said she is “cautiously optimistic” ACAATO can still work with the association to include some equivalency arrangement with the CHRP requirements.

Sheridan’s Mercer said that aside from the membership survey the association never produced any statistical evidence to support the idea that employers want HR people with degrees.

On the other hand surveys of employers conducted by the colleges have shown a great deal of satisfaction in the quality of the graduates being produced, he said.

This is a major change for the profession but it is being done without any evidence-based research, he said. If the association wants to make such a fundamental change it should be done based on systematic consultation with employers, but that hasn’t been done, said Mercer.

Brian Gatien, a Sudbury-based employment lawyer, past president of the HRPAO and opponent of the new requirement, said part of the reason for the change is that people with “special connections” to universities have a significant role on the HRPAO board. The HRPAO acts like the colleges provide an inferior education, he said. “I think this is a slap in the face to community colleges in saying they don’t provide an equivalent education. It is academic arrogance.”

In addition to Belcourt, a professor at York University, the board includes two other university faculty, Andrew Templer, Windsor University, and Harold Leece, Brock University.

Debbie Bennett, vice-president of HR at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, is chair of the professional standards committee that explored the degree requirement and made the recommendation for the change to the board of directors. She said there was nothing wrong with either the research or the consultation process. “I don’t see any deficiencies in the research that was conducted,” she said.

Nobody ever said the survey was inconclusive, only that one of the questions was inconclusive, said Bennett. The 26-question survey was answered by 678 HRPAO members.

Fifty per cent of respondents said a university degree should be a requirement for the designation while 43 per cent said a college diploma was sufficient. This was not considered conclusive evidence, she said. However, when respondents were asked about recruitment for HR departments in the future, 50 per cent said they would look for entry-level applicants to have a degree but more than 80 per cent said they would want any positions above entry level to be filled by someone with a degree.

Bennett also said there were at least four meetings between the committee and college representatives and two college representatives served on the professional standards committee. In addition, she maintained that questions the colleges wanted to ask were put on the survey of HRPAO members and a statement outlining the college position was given to the board of directors.

She also said the colleges have known since late 2000 that HRPAO was considering a degree requirement so they had two years to produce other evidence that the idea was a bad one, but they did not.

“There is no doubt there was meaningful consultation; there was not consensus,” she said.

“I’m not sure that we could ever talk them into our point of view. To continually revisit the decisions I don’t think would have changed their mind.”

The colleges see the degree requirement as a threat, but it doesn’t need to be, said Bennett.

“They will lose some students,” she said, but colleges should be able to develop new models for revenue creation and HRPAO is committed to working with them and ACAATO to reduce the negative impact. For example, colleges will likely see an increased demand for post-degree programs and may be able to market preparation courses for the CHRP knowledge exam. More articulation agreements between colleges and universities (the recognition of coursework in one stream toward the completion of a degree or diploma in the other stream) should also make it easier for students to split their education between the two streams.

And while some people at the colleges may be hoping for the inclusion of equivalency standards as a substitute for a university degree, Bennett said the next step for HRPAO will be to figure out how to implement the change, not consider equivalencies.

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