Two years after Wallace Oyama completed a rigorous postgraduate program in International Trade that was partially paid for by his employers at Port Metro Vancouver, it was a bit surprising to find him working as a business analyst—the same position he’s occupied since 1999. It was almost as though Oyama had never left his hometown, his job, his wife and daughters to pursue the rewards of higher education on lonely trips to the University of Saskatchewan.
“I didn’t,” Oyama points out. “The 27-unit Master of International Trade program (nine courses plus a 10th no-credit seminar) administered by the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan was taught entirely online.”
“In fact,” Oyama continues, “I chose this particular program largely because I could continue to work full-time and help my wife with our young family while doing these studies.”
Oyama turned out to be part of the demographic of so-called distance learning that’s become a significant part of the back-to-school tuition assistance that companies again seem inclined to offer their employees. Verifiable research is thin, but a 2009 study by Bersin and Associates reported that 87 percent of United States companies—regardless of size or industry—spend more than $16.5 billion a year on tuition assistance benefits. Arrangements vary, but companies that help employees upgrade marketable skills use something—from giving promotions to getting repaid—to temporarily keep those employees from immediately taking their new skills elsewhere.
Oyama had reasons for returning to school—or more accurately, the screen/keyboard/tower PC in his family room—for the first time since earning his Bachelor of Commerce degree in transportation from the University of British Columbia in 1987. But his conversations with Global Trade didn’t mention promotions, pay raises, corner offices or employee of the month trophies.
“I’d been working with ideas that I wanted to explore and test through international trade,” he sort of explains.
In his mid 40s, Oyama had been traveling a career path that had not required his planning so much as his cooperation.
“My love for transportation drew me into business,” he emphasizes. “I’ve always had a fascination with the logistics, the connections, their complexity, their efficiency, the mobility we take for granted and where the possibilities lead us. I wasn’t sure where I would end up, but then something came along and carried me.”
Oyama wasn’t complaining about the route he ascended. Seven-plus years as a documentation and traffic clerk, four-and-change as a statistics coordinator and two as second vice president of International Longshore & Warehouse Union Local 517 ultimately added up to 1999, when he became a business analyst for Port Metro Vancouver. Meanwhile, his hometown port had grown into Canada’s largest—it currently moves $184 billion in goods a year among 160 international partners—and the job seemed to simultaneously ground Oyama as “a born-and-bred Vancouverite” and plug him into the rest of the world.
But as the world’s basic landscape was being quickly and constantly transformed by changes in technology, environment, pop culture, religious fundamentalism, warfare and international trade, Oyama began to wonder about his own foundation and the kind of analysis it was capable of supporting a quarter century after he graduated from college.
“First, there’s the question of, ‘Okay, how current is my understanding of things?’” he says. “Second, I had some ideas I wanted to challenge, as well as my own faculties, the analytical work I’ve done to see why things are happening the way they are. I wanted to see how the way I work would be assessed in an academic setting. And I wanted to know whether the outcome is something I can carry into my work and into other areas I may explore in the future.”
Oyama presented these objectives to Port Metro Vancouver during his request for tuition assistance.
“They paid for about half my education,” Oyama reports. “Why? It’s something I can’t talk too much about. They believe in education but they didn’t feel there was very much stuff in the area of business. I guess they weren’t too sure how much I needed to do this particular thing. They thought it was more of a personal interest than necessarily work oriented. And you know, in some respects …”
Oyama paid the other half and dedicated himself to the Master of International Trade course. It took him two years and eight months to complete.
“It was a big challenge. One of my daughters was two and the other just four months, and I was still working full time, so I just did my best,” Oyama recounts. “My wife was wonderful and my workplace gave me two or three days off each term to study along with use of my accrued vacation time. But I averaged four or five hours of sleep a night, ate cinnamon or PB&J toast for the munchies and kept drinking more and more coffee.”
But the information and knowledge Oyama sought, personally and professionally, steadily sifted through his makeshift schedule.
“Going back to study all the things that have changed since I graduated in the 1980s not only gave me updates and new ideas about them, but also the tools to better deal with things,” he says.
“It’s not just that the tools have improved so much. It’s the different skills needed to work effectively. When I became an analyst 15 years ago, it was mostly a matter of trying to get information. But now the available information is so massive that the important skill is being able to sort it out and find what’s relevant.”
Oyama came away from his studies loving transportation and trade more than ever.
“Trade is that activity that moved humans from being simple individual survivalists to being part of communities, cities, nations and connections between nations,” he says. “It’s our humble admission that someone has something or makes something that we don’t, and that we want it, and that we can get it by working together. Trade represents the productivity that comes from cooperation.”