How CE Leaders Can Drive Regional Economic Transformation With Sector-Wide Partnerships
Economic realities are in constant flux, making it more important than ever for regions to diversify in order to protect themselves from downturns in specific industries. But this diversification doesn’t have to be a top-down endeavor. In this interview, Sheila LeBlanc reflects on the role Continuing Education (CE) leaders can play in supporting regional economic diversification and labor market growth.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How can CE divisions support regional economic growth and diversification?
Sheila LeBlanc (SL): CE in particular, and universities as a whole, have an opportunity to be a strategic partner as it relates to both regional economic growth and economic diversification. A key way we do so is through workforce development. As research universities, we create new knowledge and we often point out the importance of knowledge mobilization into the economy through patents and the impact of our research. What is often forgotten is the importance of knowledge translation into professional practice. With the shortening half-life of new knowledge, it is more important than ever that research universities engage in building and offering leading-edge knowledge training to both our traditional and mid-career, non-traditional learners.
Any new knowledge that is created in the university space, if translated effectively into a talented workforce, can act as a strategic differentiator and economic development lever for our communities. The role that continuing education can play as a responsive education unit is to work with faculties to bundle up that new knowledge and make it accessible to a broad range of learner groups.
Evo: What makes this vision of the role of the institution so important for the province of Alberta?
SL: It is no secret that Alberta has had a rough few years, economically. Since the oil and gas resource sector crashed in 2014, we have experienced a long, painful recession. We have hundreds of unemployed petroleum engineers and related professionals who have been jobless for multiple years. We had a top economy for a period of time and now we have the largest unemployment rate for a large city in Canada.
Alberta—and in particular, Calgary—needs to diversify its economy. We’ve been so reliant on oil and gas as a big driver in our economy, that the municipal, provincial and federal government have now stepped in to assist in economic diversification of Alberta. This is a goal that we—the entire publicly funded postsecondary sector in Alberta—have to support.
We are now actively partnering with the government, the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses to implement a diversification strategy and decide how we can best work together to maximize the investment in talent development.
Evo: In supporting that transformation, what were some of the gaps you observed in the way Alberta’s postsecondary sector was working to support regional economic growth and diversification?
SL: Until recently, research universities were not part of the workforce development conversation. Community colleges and polytechnics have been engaged in the development of essential skills and skilled trades’ workforce development, but universities in Alberta have not been directly involved in this work. That was a big gap.
The government of Alberta is committed to diversifying our economy. A key pillar of the diversification plan is building a tech ecosystem filled with a variety of technology-based businesses. As we all know, the digital technology space is evolving quickly. New research and new applications for that new knowledge falls right in the center of the university agenda. In the new world of work, where technology affects everything we do, I saw a clear opportunity for universities to become key contributors to strategic workforce development.
However, our university executive leaders are typically focused on how to acquire more ongoing government base funding for credit programs, not how to provide short-cycle technical training programs to a broad range of non-traditional learners. Fortunately, the Alberta government pulled together an advisory council on developing tech talent comprised of key tech employers, postsecondary representatives and government officials. Our senior leadership and government officials quickly learned that employers value short-cycle, competency-based skills programs to complement the knowledge gained in traditional degree programs.
This created a window for me and our Continuing Education team to come to the table and share labour market data and ideas regarding models for supporting higher-end tech skill development. It also created a window, to bring together Alberta CE leaders in all institutional types (colleges, polytechnics and universities) to discuss how we can work together to develop tech talent at all levels for the betterment of the Alberta economy.
Evo: How did you get CE leaders to recognize that competition wasn’t in the best interests of the institutions involved? And what role did the provincial government play in supporting that vision for this collaborative, strategically aligned postsecondary ecosystem?
SL: What really started this off was working with a senior representative from the Ministry of Advanced Education. We developed a shared vision of how non-credit professional continuing education could play an important role in economic diversification and the associated skills development plan. We then pulled together CE leaders from across the province to explore the idea of collaboration and the ministry announced the first envelope of funding for continuing education program development ever offered in the province.
This was a new conversation for most CE leaders. Our units, particularly in the cities, have acted as competitors, not collaborators. I believe our shared recognition of Alberta economic conditions and our publicly funded institution ethos, of service to community, kicked in, and we started to explore ways to work together.
One example is in the area of web development. Continuing Education at the University of Calgary has had an online certificate program in this area for a few years. However, the smaller communities, served by community colleges, identified that there was a need to develop these skills in their communities, but they did not have the budget to develop and sustain a program locally. Through government funding, we developed and provided free of charge an instructors guide and complete materials for the first course in the web development certificate to be taught face-to-face by any publicly funded institution in the province. When we get local folks in small communities familiar with and confident in learning basic programming skills like HTML and CSS, they are able to transition into and complete a whole program on web development online. Learners start the first course with shared curriculum in a face-to-face model in any Alberta community and transfer that course towards completion of an online program – that’s just an example of one model that we identified.
The value to the government is that they have made a one-time investment and we now have a program that’s available to everyone and have enough students coming in to maintain it. It’s very different than a base-funded credit model, where the government is expected to fund the program on an ongoing basis. This creates a more agile and responsive option for the ministry to infuse funds into an area where they want high-quality programming without that ongoing cost.
Evo: What is the long-term impact of this kind of collaboration?
SL: As the world of work continues to change and technology impacts grow, I believe we will become a larger contributor to the educational strategy inside of this province. As CE divisions, we are one of those levers that can be used to support responsiveness and agility in workforce development. There’s still going to be a long-term need for undergraduate degree learning and for graduate learning. But for those mid-career folks or those workers displaced by technology, where re-skilling and up-skilling is required on an ongoing basis, it really establishes our role as a key player and a contributor.
Evo: What advice would you share with CE leaders or others in senior roles who looking to play a more active role in the advancement of their regional economy and labour force?
SL: I would stress the importance of partnership and data informed decisions. By using labour demand data and working with key partners, we can do so much more with less.
Start having those open conversations with your regional and provincial leadership. What is their economic development strategy? What talent is needed to make that strategy a reality? How can postsecondary institutions contribute to developing that talent? Because it’s about keeping people working, it’s about what is going on in our economy, and it’s about helping people acquire and leverage the skills needed to navigate the changing world of work through lifelong learning.
In Canada, institutional leaders have a tendency to work exclusively with their provincial ministries of advanced education but it’s important to think beyond that. Look at all the levers and consider bringing together a broader strategic vision involving different ministries, councils, businesses and institutional leaders. This was a turning point in Alberta.
And last but not least, let go of the fear of competition. In certain spaces, it’s more valuable to collaborate than to be worried about differentiation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Administrator