Published on 2020/04/15

Shared Responsibilities: What It Will Take to Deliver a True National Lifelong Learning Ecosystem

The EvoLLLution | Shared Responsibilities: What It Will Take to Deliver a True National Lifelong Learning Ecosystem
As the fundamental expectations of jobs transform across industries, employers, government bodies and postsecondary institutions must work together to build an academic ecosystem to support the necessity of lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning is becoming a reality for every adult, regardless of industry. Automation and technology evolution mean work expectations and standards change rapidly, as do the industries themselves. In this interview, Denise Amyot reflects on what this means for Canadian colleges and universities and shares her thoughts on the roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders—including government bodies and employers—in shifting our education ecosystem to a lifelong learning model.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for Canadian colleges and institutes to more actively serve lifelong learners?

Denise Amyot (DA): With technology evolving faster than ever, we see many workers seeking further education, either for a specialization or to reorient their career. The need for reskilling or upskilling is perhaps higher than it’s ever been, and all signs point to this being a major challenge in the years to come.

Several different reports have claimed that up to 50% of jobs could be disrupted by automation and new technologies in the next 10 years. This represents a double challenge for postsecondary institutions who need to train young students accordingly, while also upskilling older workers who need to adapt.

Currently, 47% of all Canadian college and institute students have previously attended a postsecondary institution and 34% already hold one degree or diploma. Learning institutions must increasingly support displaced workers, or those seeking to keep up with changes in their industry, by offering flexible training options adapted to their specific needs that take into account prior learning and experiences. They must also ensure that students are not only prepared for new and emerging jobs, but that they can also acquire the learning tools and cross-disciplinary skills necessary to continuously adapting to the inevitable changes that will come up in their field. This means promoting a culture of lifelong learning that should be embraced by individuals and employers, as well as learning institutions.

Evo: How would some of the fundamental structures of colleges need to evolve to create an environment tailored to the needs of non-traditional learners?

DA: Colleges and institutes are already known for providing flexible learning options including a large diversity of degrees and certificates, microcredentials, as well as part-time or accelerated programs that are tailored to non-traditional learners’ needs. This flexibility will become more important than ever as the labor market evolves. Microcredentials and shorter-term programs are also expected to grow in popularity as more people require some form of reskilling at some point in their career.

Providing hands-on learning opportunities is also important; it is a key component of employment-focused education. Providing internships, work placements and even applied research opportunities, in collaboration with local employers, are all good ways to ensure students graduate with the skills and experience needed to hit the ground running.

We also need to expand the recognition of prior learning and experience, through prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) services. These are already widely offered at colleges and institutes and, allow those with knowledge, skills and practical experience or prior education– acquired in Canada or abroad–to gain credit towards new credentials. Canadians who require reskilling and upskilling would benefit from shorter training times, lower costs and a faster return to the workforce. PLAR is already offered in one way or another at 95% of Canada’s public colleges and institutes, but not systematically for every program.

Colleges and institutes are leaders in all three of these areas, and by building on their current success, they are ideally placed to help Canadians adjust to the new labor market needs.

Evo: What role must provincial and federal governments play in making it easier for colleges and institutes to improve access to this demographic?

DA: Building a more flexible and accessible postsecondary sector will require concerted efforts from postsecondary institutions, governments, and employers, all of whom have a role to play in making the culture of lifelong learning a reality. The good news is that Canada has a strong foundation on which to build, and many institutions that are already working hard to deliver for their communities.

To meet current and future needs, we believe investments in flexible retraining and support mechanisms are needed. This should include better access to Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition. Recent federal investments, in programs such as the Canada Training Credit and Employment Insurance Training Support Benefit, as well as funding for work-integrated learning through the Student Work Placement Program, are all welcome support in this regard. However, a recent EKOS survey shows us that Canadians are still unsure they would have adequate support at their disposal if they wished to change careers. Just 38% of respondents said they had sufficient support, while 46% said they did not.

These numbers suggests the federal government still has work to do to promote, but also streamline, programs that support learners of all ages, including mid-career and underemployed Canadians. Provincial and territorial governments can also support retraining by making it easier for learners to move from one institution to another, both within their province and across the country. There are still some obstacles to recognizing certain credentials across the country, which could be addressed through creating policy changes and by promoting collaboration between postsecondary institutions.

Evo: What role can employers play in supporting this shift?

DA: Employers have a critical role to play in supporting this shift and will also be amongst its beneficiaries. To begin, they need to recognize that encouraging lifelong learning for their employees is a winning strategy that will help them with retention while ensuring their staff is up to date on any potential changes in their sector. With the federal government encouraging Canadians to save for continuing education through the aforementioned programs, we should start asking how employers should contribute.

They also need to seek out sustained partnerships with postsecondary institutions in order to inform them of their changing needs and identify priorities for curriculum development. In fact, every program offered at a college or institute is already developed in consultation with local experts and employers via program advisory committees. This is one of the Canadian college system’s greatest strengths and what ensures graduates are equipped with the skills they need in the workplace.

Colleges and institutes across Canada also work closely with local employers to offer fully customized programs, ensuring their staff have the skills they need to succeed in the rapidly evolving labor market. Leveraging those relationships to provide new models for continuous training will only become more important going forward.

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Key Takeaways

  • Introducing more, and more robust, prior learning assessment and recognition is going to be critical to expanding access to lifelong higher education.
  • There must be more formal policy approaches to support the education of mid-career and underemployed adults.
  • Employers must take an active role in building learning and training partnerships with local colleges and institutes.