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Lifelong Learning Critical to Weathering Coming Workforce Skills Crisis

AUDIO | Lifelong Learning Critical to Weathering Coming Workforce Skills Crisis
As a significant labor market shortage looms over North America, continuing education, work-based learning, entrepreneurial education and professional development might provide the economy with the answers it needs to navigate the storm.

The following interview is with Bonnie Patterson, president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities. In a recent editorial, Patterson discussed the importance of viewing education as a lifelong endeavor from the perspective of students, and shared her thoughts on how universities could support that vision. In this interview, Patterson expands on those thoughts in more detail and discusses how the labor market demands ongoing learning from employees, and the responsibilities that employers have in ensuring their employees are up-to-speed.

1. You mention that getting and keeping a job will typically require students to augment their education and mix their knowledge of a core discipline with learning specific, relevant skills. What can colleges and universities do to better engrain the importance of this kind of lifelong learning into their graduates?

Fundamental to university education, of course, is learning to learn. When students interact with faculty role models, they spend their life as lifelong learners through their research and scholarly pursuits. So when we think about it, universities are promoting lifelong learning through not just who they are and what they do and the skills they develop in students, but they also do it through continuing education faculties and various types of outreach programs. So, whether these programs are courses or certificate programs, they are extremely responsive to the job market and, many times, they’re led by some of the captains of various industries. So that’s a capability that the universities want to have in their suite of offerings.

They also put on many shorter types of courses that reflect needs in current technology and, of course, the mature student who has already taken some training often will come back through their extension or continuing education programs to upgrade their backgrounds. So, we accept that people have jobs and families and busy lives, so our students also can learn online — and that has been a growth area for upgrading skills and credentials over the last decade. Now, some universities offer special kinds of opportunities for their own graduates. So, if you happen to be living and working in the same environment that you went to school, often graduates are offered, for example, a free continuing education course that they can return to and fill some gap when they enter the job market. And universities do stay in close contact with their graduates who need help navigating the job market.

We recently did a comprehensive review of the types of support services that our career centers offer to students. And those career centers actually make that available to alumni, to their graduates of universities. But we need to get that word out a little further because many graduates aren’t availing themselves of that opportunity.

And, I guess, finally, I’d say we do work very cooperatively with community colleges. And so, if you think about it, often universities and colleges together, in the Canadian context, are combining university and college experiences in collaborative or joint programs, or they have articulated various types of programs. I can give you examples of a four-year undergraduate degree in geography with a specialized community college certificate in something like GIS systems that get brought together in a student experience. And so, those are other ways that we continue to help students move between types of institutions and therefore different lifelong learning opportunities.

2. How are labor market trends influencing lifelong learning?

Well, it’s very interesting because our parents’ generation basically picked an organization, a company, a public sector organization, and it wasn’t unusual in the past that they would stay with that organization for a lifetime. This new generation really moves around much more, changes careers more frequently and certainly over a lifetime. It would be highly unusual today to find many that would say, “I’ve been 30 years with this company.”

So the labor market is very dynamic. There are jobs disappearing from the labor market, particularly in areas of manufacturing, for example. Many others, though, are being invented and they’re the kinds of jobs that we haven’t even thought about when someone was going through a university program. So, that requires employees to be more diligent about acquiring additional education, to allow themselves to stay flexible and have a resilient capacity to respond. But historical trends have continued in that, when the economy is in a downturn, more students tend to return to university for re-skilling, upgrading, completing degrees; often, there are shifts from part-time to full-time studies. But, quite frankly, university education sets employees up for the world of work, gives them skills that transcend labor market fluctuations — such as critical thinking, complex problem-solving, communication skills, teamwork — all the kinds of soft skills that are enduring that companies today and groups, for example, like the Conference Board of Canada, say, are those innovation skill sets needed for the long term.

So, there are ways through continuing education courses where there are very targeted responses to employer needs that augment the student’s learning at university and that can give them specific job training. But universities have historically been, in part, vocationally focused and in the last decade have seen extraordinary growth in graduate programs that are professionally related and undergraduate programs that also have a professional orientation.

So, those are a few connections that I think are important to remember.

3. Finally, what kind of responsibility do employers have when it comes to encouraging and supporting their employees’ lifelong learning, even if it means the employee gets the training to move into a position at a different company?

Again, we’ve seen — over a few decades — some changes. Employers used to hire graduates right out of school knowing that they had that critical skill set they needed to succeed. But more and more, their demands of the entry-level graduate — whether they are a mature student or directly from a school process — [have grown]. And so they have had to, over time, pick up specific types of job training, whether it’s related to the sector, the particular industry, or very specific skills. As a global economic recession has hit, companies have started pulling back and, if you look at training dollars spent per employee, you see a decline in that investment that’s being made and … when resources are extremely scarce and markets are tighter, then maybe that entry-level training has decreased a little and it creates a more challenging time for that student. But, at the same time, we know that universities and colleges can’t do everything and we need our industry partners to step up and be partners in that training.

We’re working with Chambers of Commerce, for example, to encourage employers to not only think about the training once they hire someone in a full-time capacity, but to think about the ecosystem that exists with universities and their graduates while they are in study, so universities are putting in place and expanding their co-op opportunities within their programs; there are internships, community-based placements — that has all been a part of workplace experiential learning that has been growing considerably. And we have to ensure that employers create the receptor capacity to that.

Now, sometimes companies say, “Well, I need someone that can hit the ground running. If I bring in an intern, it’s going to lower my own core staff’s productivity levels.” That’s particularly challenging for the SME, the small- or medium-sized enterprise. But if they keep thinking about that ecosystem — that an early investment in an internship or co-op placement actually gives them access to the talent pool as it’s growing and blossoming, and they can pick the best as they then emerge and are ready for full-time employment — and so that ecosystem is something we have been talking about more and more with employers. And with talent being extremely mobile today, it’s going to be important for the long-term strategy of business success. So universities aren’t stopping there. A new growth area for us is fostering entrepreneurship, for example, and trying to unleash a new generation of job creators and you will see, in many instances, universities that are creating startup incubator space — whether it’s in residences or in other university space — they’re bringing in venture capital and angel investors to work with students who are bright and think of themselves as creating their own jobs for the future.

So, that’s a relatively new growth area for universities and we think that’s a really positive thing, looking forward to the future.

4. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of lifelong learning for today’s graduates and yesterday’s graduates when looking to succeed in the workforce?

Well, we think that with good partnership development, we think that employers need to provide learning opportunities for their employees for professional development. We know we can collaborate. We have the capacity and the expertise to collaborate and offering specially-designed development opportunities for corporations for individuals. Lifelong learning is about building that capacity to be agile, flexible, resilient with the kinds of changes that are taking place in global markets.

So, that includes thinking about learning new languages, learning about cultures of other countries, constantly tuning up your communications capability. If you think about social media training, that was never part of what we worried about in communications context in the past. So, whether it’s part-time or full-time study or online study, specific or more generic skill development, it’s all there. So, this is about a partnership for the future generation of leaders and employees as we face, over the decades ahead, a looming skills shortage and advanced skill shortage demographically in North America.

This interview has been edited for length.

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