The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed workplaces – and for many people, career trajectories – in ways and at speeds we likely would not have imagined just over a year ago. Jen Ruzicka is living proof.
The 35-year-old graphic-designer-turned-hairstylist was contemplating career number three when COVID-19 shut down the salon where she worked. “It was the motivation I needed to bite the bullet and pursue something new,” says Ruzicka.
After a series of aptitude tests and career coaching, “something new” turned out to be human resources. “I like listening to people and problem-solving, so it seemed like a win-win,” says Ruzicka, who is wrapping up her first year of a two-year Human Resources Management diploma at MacEwan University.
Ruzicka may only be halfway through her program, but she is already gaining real-world experience solving HR problems.
That’s no accident, says Dr. Mike Annett, associate professor in the university’s Department of Organizational Behaviour, Human Resources and Management, who two years ago redesigned the program with colleagues Dr. Dianna Dempsey and Dr. Francoise Cadigan. Now, rather than solely focusing on traditional course assignments to solve theoretical problems for fictional organizations, students often find themselves addressing real issues with immediate applications for community organizations like Boyle Street Community Services, Goodwill Industries of Alberta and the County of Wetaskiwin.
“The best way to prepare students to do work that requires judgment, foresight and a deep understanding of both business and people is to work closely with industry partners to provide experiences where they can do just that,” says Dr. Annett.
What is a career in human resources all about? Dr. Mike Annett says that HR simultaneously touches the core aspects of a business, including the hearts and hands of its employees, working to make sure both businesses and employees are healthy and successful.
So just months after starting her program, Ruzicka was already being asked to help shape policy for the County of Wetaskiwin as part of Dr. Annett’s employee relations course. “It was a bit overwhelming at first, but it was so great to be able to relate what we were learning to something concrete, to get feedback from our partners and to contribute to something that is going to exist beyond this semester,” she says.
Experiences, including community-integrated learning, are also impacting the future HR professional’s post-graduation plans. “Being able to get my diploma after two years and to start working has felt like a huge safety net,” says Ruzicka. “But now I’m also seeing how this has set me up to pursue a degree.”
And students aren’t the only ones who benefit when community members are invited into the classroom. Pauline Melnyk, a human resources consultant who works with Rod Hawken, Chief Administrative Officer with the County of Wetaskiwin, says small organizations that can’t afford dedicated human resources personnel also take something important away.
“There is a significant amount of volunteer time that goes into reviewing the students’ work, but in addition to being a way for us to give back to the community, it’s also a way to gain insight and thoughts from a younger generation,” says Melnyk.
Hawken adds that he’s been impressed with the students’ work. “They really put a lot of effort into considering the options available to them and challenged me to think differently in the future.”
Community partner projects are just one of the ways industry experts find their way into MacEwan’s HR classrooms. Guest speakers are another important way to bring theories, frameworks and principles to life, and help students better envision what their future careers will look like, says Dr. Annett.
“I think it’s reassuring when practicing professionals tell our students to email them with questions or for advice,” he says. “Students know that they are not alone in navigating their career journey – that people who are out there doing this work are willing to help them.”
Sometimes guest speakers do even more. Two months after a speaker from a local oil and gas field services company visited Dr. Annett’s employee relations course and mentioned an upcoming job opportunity, Cristiana Brennan was celebrating her first job in HR with that very company.
“My new position will handle recruitment and selection,” says Brennan, who is an HR major in her final semester of MacEwan’s Bachelor of Commerce program. “I’m very excited to take on this role, gain valuable field experience and apply the knowledge from every MacEwan course I’ve taken.”
Experience is critical to employability, of course, but because holding a professional designation can expand students’ career opportunities, seeking accreditation from the Chartered Professionals in Human Resources of Alberta was a key part of the program’s redesign, explains Dr. Annett. By the time students graduate from the Human Resources Management program, they are halfway to their designation.
That’s why Garnet Doyle chose MacEwan. While he already holds a commerce degree from another university, Doyle wanted to get a jump on his accreditation, so he decided to pursue the Human Resources Management program online.
“I’ve been working full-time in my current human resources assistant role while studying online at MacEwan,” says Doyle. “Human resources is a fascinating field that can make a drastic impact on businesses – helping both companies and employees improve in ways they may not have realized were even possible. I’m excited about the interesting career paths that human resources has to offer.”
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