Finding Your Career Path: Competency and Learner Pathways in Continuing Education
Canadian business recognizes that changes in the workplace require continuous skill development through lifelong learning. Employees also recognize the need to remain relevant to their industry’s changing needs, to change roles or enter a new area of employment.
Employer and employee demand requires postsecondary institutions to adapt and offer more short courses (including microcredentials) that identify sets of competencies industry requires. Canada’s focus on identifying training and workplace experiences to support newcomers, Indigenous learners and minority groups drives this demand.
SAIT’s Continuous Education and Professional Studies (CEPS) develops and delivers short courses with clearly identified competencies. To foster greater engagement and give learners control of their learning, our career mapping tool focuses on competencies, flexible learning and career pathways (using the power of an AI platform). Additionally, organizations can assess digital competencies in their industries and customize learning pathways to bridge competency gaps. As the career mapping tool is implemented, further data will be analyzed and lessons learnt, which CEPS is committed to sharing to encourage greater learner and industry use of competency-based training with clear career paths mapped. Providing this information ensures greater transparency about the value of training to both the employer and employees.
Workplace trends and projections about the future of work drive adult education in both postsecondary institutions and private providers. Flexible work patterns, the rise of digital technologies in the workplace, short-term contracting aka the gig economy and increased worker mobility are all contributing to changes in the workplace, largely driven by:
- technological development including AI, automation and digitization, machine learning (ML) and new platforms that use AI and ML to lead social and industrial processes);
- manifestations of the climate crisis including the global shift to renewable and low-carbon energy sources
- increases in social inequalities, leading to human disasters (refugees, fleeing conflict, levels of homelessness, addictions);
- changes to population ages and socio-economic demographics, which puts pressure on political and economic systems,
- the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lasting impact on global economic and social systems and structures.
Such challenges are further exacerbated by the “growing mismatch between people’s current skills and those needed for the jobs at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”[i]
It is critical that we, as countries, education systems and education institutions address such macro challenges and how they manifest at the local level. This requires us to “rethink learning for people of all ages and to transform education systems.”[ii] This change is also required as we note the current inequalities that exist in society, and the role lifelong learning plays to address them.
In the Canadian context, businesses have recognized the importance of training employees in support of “their global competitiveness and success.”[iii] Research the Business and Higher Education Roundtable[iv] conducted notes that 65% of respondents have a strategy in place to upskill and reskill to address the global and Canadian challenges. The report further notes that partnerships between corporations and postsecondary institutions are an important source of training to address the skills deficit. However, postsecondary institutions have not always been responsive to business skills needs nor agile enough to identify, develop and deliver short-term training to meet upskilling and reskilling needs.
SAIT’s five-year strategy (2020–2025)[v] identifies lifelong learning as a critical part of addressing these challenges, particularly to “grow and reposition continuing education at SAIT into a comprehensive suite of professional studies products:
- delivering professional skills training through a centre for continuing education and professional studies;
- providing customized learning solutions to individuals, businesses and governments globally by building long-term strategic partnerships;
- developing a dynamic suite of products aimed at career acceleration specific to upskilling and reskilling for mid-career professionals.”
Addressing learners’ upskilling and reskilling needs relies on the World Economic Forum’s description that “upskilling refers to the expansion of people’s capabilities and employability so they can fully participate in a rapidly changing economy,”[vi] often seen as a linear path based on changes to job roles within a sector. Reskilling is generally understood to be lateral movements requiring employees to learn new skills, often in another sector or due to technological or industry disruptions.
SAIT’s five-year strategy established Continuing Education and Professional Studies (CEPS) within the Corporate Development, Applied Research and International (CDARI) group. CEPS’s mandate is to support reskilling and upskilling, so people have access to quality applied learning opportunities as they navigate challenges related to the economy, unpredictable labour markets and workplace changes. As such, CEPS’s career mapping tool will help both learners and employers better adapt to the changing workplace environment through upskilling and reskilling in digital careers.
The Rise of Microcredentials and Competency Mapping
SAIT’s focus on upskilling and reskilling identified different course structures and delivery modalities as critical to learner success. Microcredential-based courses are a critical model of training that can be delivered in-person, blended, and online (synchronous and asynchronous). As noted by Naidoo et al., “Micro-credentials are rooted in the digital badge movement that first gained traction to support adult learning in the workforce.”[vii] The Open Badges group identified digital badges as one way to illustrate acquired competencies based on training. Microcredentials are a manifestation of the digital badge model and allow employees to keep abreast of industry developments, skills required and changing standards, so they can remain relevant in the workplace, progress in their careers or change jobs. As with all relatively new concepts, there are healthy debates and discussions on how to define microcredentials, what constitutes a course leading to a microcredential and their delivery modalities.
Microcredentials “reflect competencies required by the industry (and) it reflects a trend toward on-demand, short-form skills development focused on competencies and specific abilities.”[viii] Therefore, microcredentials should be “viewed as another worthy credential, just as we recognize the role and importance of other credentials like certificates, degrees and diplomas.”[ix]
SAIT has used the Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) and Polytechnics Canada definition of a microcredential to be a certification of assessed competencies that is additional, alternate, complementary to or a component of, a formal qualification. In addition, further work has been done to develop a SAIT-wide capabilities framework designed to support learners with “observable human attributes that are demonstrated independent of context,”[x] so they can “keep adapting the skills they have and be motivated to acquire new skills rapidly and through a variety of channels suited to the conditions and requirements of the opportunity.”[xi] Microcredentials meet the needs of learners who value adapting existing skills and acquiring new skills with flexible learning that works according to their schedule.
Employers are also increasing their understanding of microcredentials. A recent survey completed by Higher Education Strategy Associates and The Strategic Counsel[xii] noted that since 2019, there has been an 11% increase in awareness of microcredentials among employers familiar with the term. When the term was described to employers that did not know about microcredentials, a further 12% recalled it. These numbers illustrate good progress regarding microcredential awareness but also show that more work needs to be done to ensure employers are aware of how valuable microcredentials are to developing specific skills and competencies.
Competence, or competency, emerged in the mid-twentieth century as a descriptor of the personal attributes or behavioural traits employees with superior performance and motivation exhibited.[xiii] Since then, we have come to understand that an individual’s competency is predictive of their performance because it emphasizes application in a workplace context over theoretical skill or knowledge acquisition.
Competencies are a combination of knowledge, skills to apply that knowledge and any additional aptitudes required to create successful outcomes as a result of applying those skills and knowledge. Jeff Griffiths describes competencies as related behaviours that produce successful outcomes in a particular context,[xiv] which highlights the value of competencies: the focus on outcomes rather than just actions.
Additionally, levels of competence can be described and then ascribed to individuals as they move from unconscious incompetence, when they do not know anything, to beginner, intermediate and finally expert levels of competence.[xv] These individual competencies can be assessed against frameworks organizations use to hire, assess and assign employees. Microcredentials explicitly frame learning in the context of specific skills and competencies, making it clear for both learners and employers to understand the competencies gained.
Competencies emerge through job roles, education or other experiences that recognize the full value the employee brings to their career. In fact, 62% of HR practitioners identify competency-based hiring as helping them achieve equity, diversity and inclusion goals. As one HR professional suggests, “I think we’re already moving toward more skill-based work because college is so expensive. I think proof of skills and continuing education will be more important than just a degree.”[xvi] Continuing education in particular is recognized as a key component of skills-based hiring and assessment.
When employers recognize competencies developed outside of formal learning credentials, including self-learners, those who have acquired skills in non-traditional or international roles and individuals from underrepresented populations within the workforce, they increase the volume in their talent pipeline[xvii]. With an estimated cost of $25 billion due to skills vacancy (employers’ inability to find skilled employees) in Canada alone,[xviii] the importance of being able to describe, assess and hire individuals based on their skills and competencies is critical, especially in our digital economy.
The focus on competencies in workplaces also shifts training and education in adult learning spaces from seat time (the traditional method of measuring learning) to skills acquisition[xix] and flexible learning. Replacing requirements for a set amount of time spent studying or working in a particular role with validation of competency democratizes a variety of human resource processes like recruitment, evaluation and promotion. IMS Global, in its survey of HCM (Human Capital Management) practitioners, reports a 48% increase in employers using competency-based hiring over 33 years and anticipates that the increase will continue as HR departments rely more and more on predictive data analysis to assist their workforce planning.[xx] Decisions about hiring, promotion and workforce planning based on competency frameworks will benefit individuals seeking to upskill or reskill in a changing job market.
Similarly, while the above-mentioned cost of skills gaps may have many causes, the pace of today’s work environment is also a factor to consider. As Sean Hinton, founder and CEO of SkyHive, a skills technology company, notes, “The pace at which jobs need to be redefined is [measured] in months, not years.”[xxi] This rapid pace also points to the importance identifying and developing soft skills to bolster individuals’ abilities to respond to this changing market.
Soft skills, also known as professional skills or 21st-century skills, are transferable across a range of contexts and generally differ from technical skills, which are usually industry- or role-specific. Some examples of emerging professional skills include analytical thinking, resilience, creative thinking, empathy, self-awareness, social influence, curiosity, active listening, agility, lifelong learning and flexibility.[xxii] The World Economic Forum “Future of Jobs” report estimates that between 40 and 50% of employees will need to reskill these professional skills in the next five years.[xxiii] At SAIT, the above-mentioned framework is just one of the ways in which we are responding to the continual need to upskill and reskill professional skills.
Value of Flexible Learner Pathways
Flexible learner pathways allow learners to fill the gaps in their competencies and needs and provide them with opportunities to learn throughout their lifetime. With some experts suggesting our working lives can span more than six decades, the need for lifelong, flexible learning is critical because “the real driver of the 60-year curriculum is the job market and length of life. The employee of the future typically will have a new job every five years, probably for 60 to 80 years, and probably every one of those will require skills you did not learn in college.”[xxiv]
Flexible and customized learning pathways not only allow individuals to respond to workplace change but also foster a culture of lifelong learning. When education becomes an ongoing journey rather than a fixed destination, individuals become accustomed to learning. With the typical employee changing jobs every five years, even within the same organization, there is a critical need for upskilling and reskilling to acquire new skills. Clear skill pathways also lead to better outcomes for employees regarding their career options. With over 70% of employees surveyed reporting that they have left a job because they did not have a clear career path for progression but would have stayed if they had,[xxv] the importance of pathways that respond to the different patterns of job changes for individuals as well as businesses is critical.
Pathways give learners a greater degree of control over their learning and can be more democratic. They are more efficient for learners facing various barriers, especially adult learners and those from marginalized groups (e.g., newcomers to Canada, Indigenous learners and women). As UNESCO notes in its higher education report, “Creating more flexible, learner-centred provision is fundamental to accommodating non-traditional students’ diverse backgrounds, their additional professional and personal commitments, and their different learning styles and previous life experiences.”[xxvi] SAIT recognizes these different needs and offers multiple learning formats such as online, part-time or evening programs, allowing individuals with differing abilities, schedules and responsibilities to upskill the way that it works for them.
Flexible learning pathways are not only valuable to employers and learners but also to learning providers. Higher education adopts flexible learning pathways for several reasons, the primary ones being “to widen participation in higher education” and “to better respond to diverse adult learner needs.”[xxvii] Further, Employment and Social Development Canada notes that “leading-edge companies and organizations already recognize the competitive advantages gained through the value proposition of continually investing in upskilling and reskilling their workforce” through pathways and on-the-job training.[xxviii] The same report also calls for the use of data science and AI tools to “generate personalized, credible pathways for learning, skills development and employment opportunities” for all Canadians.[xxix]
Using tools that assess skills that flexible learning pathways reliably identify can provide, “consistent, credible definitions of skills, complemented by easily-applied tools, [that] employers, training providers and individuals can [use to] assess a person’s skills in a credible and reliable manner.”[xxx] Recognizing “the full range of knowledge, skills and attitudes that individuals have obtained in various contexts and through various means across different phases of their lives, including in non-formal and informal education settings” is an essential part of flexible learning pathways.[xxxi] Creating opportunities for learners to be recognized for their full range of skills beyond the ones their academic credentials or job titles represent will allow learners to customize their learning pathway as they seek to upskill and reskill in a changing work environment.
Case Study: What SAIT Is Doing Today
As an innovative postsecondary institution, SAIT demonstrates thought leadership in its programming, advising and curriculum development. For example, SAIT’s digital microcredentials incorporate work-integrated learning (WIL) options to better prepare learners for their chosen career[xxxii] in addition to student support, multimodal course offerings and real-life, industry-informed curricula. In conjunction with CEPS’s vision to be a global leader in applied education, we have developed personalized learning pathways in our career mapping tool.
As part of the larger Digital X (Digital Transformation) project the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF) funded in 2020, the career mapping tool uses emerging technology to nurture learners’ entrepreneurial drive, spark their curiosity and allow them to showcase their innovative thinking in collaboration with business and industry leaders. The career mapping tool is not a single vision, however, because of its individualized nature, which accelerates learning across a broad learner population.
Digital roles in particular are rapidly evolving and playing a larger, more important role in workplaces today. Although there are generational differences in attitudes toward digital technologies like artificial intelligence, there is a consensus among generations that AI will influence the workplace, with younger generations projecting its influence will be positive.[xxxiii] The career mapping tool focuses on digital roles that will help individual learners and employers identify the competencies needed and be able to rapidly fill gaps through flexible learning pathways and courses like microcredentials.
The focus on competencies rather than just skills in the career mapping project is a deliberate choice on SAIT’s part. Because competencies include task results or completion in addition to just recording the skills demonstrated, they provide a more comprehensive view of how an individual will perform based on their skills, knowledge and aptitude. Additionally, we are furthering the work needed to illustrate the value of microcredentials for employers and how competencies attained add value and support upskilling and reskilling to open up career options. We regularly engage with employers, learning what emerging competencies and skills they need and providing them solutions like microcredentials to meet those needs.
In mapping competencies and creating pathways in digital roles, SAIT is providing progression training options that allow individuals to transition in their careers, organizations to map their talent pipeline and communities to provide opportunities to their members. Specifically, our career mapping tool engages learners and organizations and supports their careers and talent pipelines respectively. Because services for individuals and organizations assessing their digital competencies are often limited, the career mapping tool creates a streamlined experience to evaluate both individuals and organizations’ digital competencies, then provides customized learning pathways to bridge any competency gaps the evaluation process identified. Organizations will be able to identify systemic competency gaps through an aggregated analysis of the employees within the organization. Organizations, particularly those transitioning to the digital world, can identify critical competency clusters necessary for this change, allowing them to adopt key learning and development strategies efficiently and move to implementation quickly.
A key component of SAIT’s career mapping project is the opportunity to partner with organizations that serve employees and job seekers. There are two primary partners: organizations that serve underrepresented groups in the job market and organizations that support professional development, generally in an industry or profession. By engaging with community organizations that work with client groups underrepresented in the workforce, SAIT can address the needs of those clients and support the organizations in providing tools for their clients that address their training needs. By working with industry and professional associations, SAIT addresses the workers’ upskilling needs to stay up to date in our continually shifting workplaces.
Potential learners that both groups refer, in addition to the learners that SAIT CEPS traditionally serves across its offerings, will be able to assess the gaps between their current competencies and those needed for careers in digital technologies using an AI-powered career mapping tool. The courses in SAIT’s digital portfolio, in areas ranging from applied machine learning to digital marketing can then be used to create customized, individual pathways, so learners can move efficiently and effectively from where they are now to the careers and opportunities to which they aspire. Tracking their progress through their custom career path and having access to labour market intelligence about their chosen career empowers users to shape their career development in ways that are meaningful for them.
As learners enter the program, their progress along their career paths will be assessed and tracked. As the program is delivered, individual stories of customized learner pathways and transformed careers will emerge and demonstrate the viability—and criticality—of responsive postsecondary solutions like the career mapping tool for employee engagement and workforce development.
In this way, SAIT stands as a leader in the postsecondary space, creating tools and customized learning opportunities for learners that recognize the changing workplace, the rise of short-form courses like microcredentials and the shifting nature of continuing education.
[i] World Economic Forum. (2023, January). Upskilling to Shared Prosperity: Insight Report. World Economic Forum. https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Upskilling_for_Shared_Prosperity_2021.pdf
[ii] UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (2023). International Trends of Lifelong Learning in Higher Education Research Report. UNESCO. https://uil.unesco.org/international-trends-lifelong-learning-higher-education-research-report
[iii] Business and Higher Education Roundtable. (2023). Upskilling and Reskilling: How Employers are Retraining and Retaining Canada’s Workforce. Business Council of Canada. https://bher.ca/sites/default/files/2023-03/Skills%20Working%20Group%20Report.pdf
[v] Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. (2020). New World. New Thinking. 2020-2025. Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. https://www.sait.ca/assets/documents/about-sait/new-world-new-thinking.pdf
[vi] World Economic Forum. (2023, January). Upskilling to Shared Prosperity: Insight Report. World Economic Forum. https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Upskilling_for_Shared_Prosperity_2021.pdf
[vii] Naidoo, V., Kinzel, C., & Saranchuk, N. (2023, July 11). Microcredentials: Why Industry is in the Driver’s Seat. The Evolllution. https://evolllution.com/programming/credentials/microcredentials-why-industry-is-in-the-drivers-seat-2/
[x] Hagel III, J., Seely Brown, J., & Wooll, M. (2021). Skills Change, but Capabilities Endure. Why Fostering Human Capabilities First Might be more Important than Reskilling in the Future of Work. Deloitte Insights. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/technology-and-the-future-of-work/future-of-work-human-capabilities.html
[xii] Higher Education Strategy Associates and The Strategic Council, 2023. Revisiting Micro-credentials in the Canadian Marketplace.
[xiii] Salman, M., Ganie, S.A. and I. Saleem. (2020). The concept of competence: a thematic review and discussion. The European Journal of Training and Development. 44:67.
[xiv] Griffiths, J. “Competency 101 – Part 1 … What the Heck are Competencies?” Workforce Strategies International. https://www.workforcestrat.com/competency-101-part-1-what-the-heck-are-competencies/
[xv] Salman, M., Ganie, S.A. and I. Saleem. (2020). The concept of competence: a thematic review and discussion. The European Journal of Training and Development. 44:67.
[xvi] EdTech Foundation and IMS Global Learning Consortium. (2021). Digital Credentials and Competency Frameworks: Exploring Employer Readiness and Use in Talent Management. https://www.imsglobal.org/sites/default/files/wellspring/Wellspring_II_Employer_Research.pdf
[xviii] Gabler, Nachum J. (2022, March 2). Economic Cost of Skills Vacancies. The Conference Board of Canada. https://www.conferenceboard.ca/focus-areas/canadian-economics/economic-cost-of-skills-vacancies/
[xix] 1EdTech Foundation and IMS Global Learning Consortium. (2021). Digital Credentials and Competency Frameworks: Exploring Employer Readiness and Use in Talent Management. IMS Global Learning Consortium. https://www.imsglobal.org/sites/default/files/wellspring/Wellspring_II_Employer_Research.pdf
[xxi] Gallaher, S.R., Welsh, A., Trieckel, E., Houston, C. (2023). Understanding the Emerging SkillsTech Landscape https://cps.northeastern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/SkillsTech_Landscape.pdf
[xxii] Saadia Zahidi, Vesselina Ratcheva, Guillaume Hingel, and Sophie Brown, The Future of Jobs Report 2020 (World Economic Forum, October 2020), https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2020.
[xxiv] Tugend, Alina (2019, Oct. 10) 60 Years of Higher Ed – Really? https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/10/education/learning/60-year-curriculum-higher-education.html
[xxv] Talent Guard. (2019). Addressing the Skills Gap: Taking a Comprehensive Approach to Upskilling and Reskilling. Lighthouse Research and Advisory. https://back.talentguard.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Addressing-the-Skills-Gap-2019.pdf
[xxvi] UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (2023). International Trends of Lifelong Learning in Higher Education Research Report. UNESCO. https://uil.unesco.org/international-trends-lifelong-learning-higher-education-research-report
[xxviii] Future Skills Council. (2020, November). Canada—A Learning Nation. A Skilled, Agile Workforce Ready to Shape the Future. Employment and Social Development Canada. https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2020/edsc-esdc/Em16-20-2020-eng.pdf
[xxxi] UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (2023). International Trends of Lifelong Learning in Higher Education Research Report. UNESCO. https://uil.unesco.org/international-trends-lifelong-learning-higher-education-research-report
[xxxii] Canada West Foundation. (2023, April 13). The Future of Work and Learning Brief 33 Innovations in Workplace Learning. Canada West Foundation. https://cwf.ca/research/publications/the-future-of-work-and-learning-brief-33-innovations-workplace-learning/
[xxxiii] Canada West Foundation. (2023, June 15). The Future of Work and Learning Brief 35 Going Digital in Energy, Electricity, Agriculture and more. Canada West Foundation. https://cwf.ca/research/publications/the-future-of-work-and-learning-brief-35-going-digital-in-energy-electricity-agriculture-and-more/