(This article has been translated into French.)

Canada’s rapidly changing labour market creates opportunities and challenges that force us all to reflect on the future of work and learning. This is top of mind for employers, governments, educators and learners, but a new national survey from EKOS Research Associates confirms it is also a significant concern for all Canadians.

Ninety-eight percent of respondents believe that access to lifelong learning is important at all ages, according to the survey. The results suggest that Canadians recognize the value of post-secondary education for youth. They also believe that people will need more access to retraining throughout their careers in order to keep up with disruptive technologies and changes in the workplace.

The survey provides insights into what kind of training opportunities Canadians are looking for. Nearly 90 percent of respondents agree that a good education is one that gives hands-on experience to students, and 87 percent agree that the purpose of post-secondary education is to help people get, and keep, good jobs. Eighty-seven percent agree that businesses should advise post-secondary institutions to make sure students graduate with the skills they need in the workplace, as is already the practice in colleges and institutes.

Maybe these results aren’t too surprising, given the public’s preoccupation with the importance of career-focused skills, but we did see some unexpected results. One might assume that most Canadians would prefer online and other technological methods for training, but interestingly, 64 percent of Canadians say they still prefer accessing training in a classroom. The number is greater, 78 percent, among those aged 18 to 34. Respondents in the prime retraining demographic – those between ages 35 and 54 – are slightly less likely than the national average to prefer accessing training in a classroom at a post-secondary institution, which stresses the need for a variety of training options.

When it comes to online learning, preferences are split between those who prefer to use pre-recorded resources, including text and video, and those who prefer live online tutoring. This tells us that post-secondary institutions need to be flexible, especially because the student population they serve is increasingly diverse, and includes displaced workers and those seeking to keep up with changes in their industry.

Barriers to education are also a concern for many Canadians, so more support is needed from various sources, including government and employers. This is especially relevant if we want more people to access retraining opportunities later in their careers. About 63 percent of respondents indicated that paying for tuition and living expenses is a barrier to retraining. And the time commitment needed for getting training was identified as a barrier by 53 percent of respondents.

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 forms of support. However, the EKOS survey suggests that Canadians are still not sure they have adequate resources at their disposal to change careers. Just 38 percent of respondents said they had sufficient support, while 46 percent said they did not.

The EKOS results are in line with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) report The Future of Jobs 2018, which finds that employers are set to focus their retraining efforts on high-value roles or high-performing employees. Only 33 percent of employers surveyed by the WEF state they would prioritize retraining at-risk employees in the roles most likely to be affected by automation. This sentiment is evident in the EKOS survey of Canadians, which reports that younger, highly educated and wealthy respondents say they have sufficient opportunities and support for retraining. Canadians with an income of $50,000 or less (35 percent), and those with only a high school education (34 percent), are less likely to say they have sufficient support and opportunities to change careers.

This suggests the government still has work to do to promote, but also to streamline, programs that support learners of all ages, including mid-career and underemployed Canadians. In addition, employers would have much to gain by embracing lifelong learning policies. In these times of rapid technological change, professional development is becoming not simply a benefit but a basic requirement.

Colleges and institutes are ready partners, and have a long history of building programs that reflect the needs of both learners and industry. Program advisory committees composed of local employers ensure that every single program produces graduates who are ready to hit the ground running. Post-secondary institutions also work with employers to meet their in-house retraining needs, often providing contract training when employers need to upgrade their employees’ skills.

Their success is in this area is reflected in the survey – 91 percent of respondents agree that colleges and institutes prepare students with the technical skills they need to succeed in the workplace. Similarly, 88 percent of Canadians believe that these institutions have a positive impact on their local communities.

Overall, these results are very encouraging for the entire post-secondary sector. They demonstrate that Canadians are confident post-secondary institutions will equip them for success, and they see the value of programs that provide hands-on experience and help learners prepare for changes in their careers. Still, we have to recognize that people need flexibility in how training options are designed and delivered, and they need more support to remove the risk from investing in their on-going learning.

This will require concerted effort on the part of post-secondary institutions, governments and employers, and all of them have a role to play in making a culture of lifelong learning a reality. The good news is that Canada has a strong foundation on which to build, as many institutions are already working hard to deliver for their communities.

To meet current and future needs, colleges and institutes must improve access to prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) services, which allow learners to earn credits for real-life knowledge, reduce training times, decrease costs and return to the workforce faster. PLAR is already offered in one way or another at 95 percent of Canada’s public colleges and institutes, but not systematically in every program.

Governments should also engage with employers, particularly with small and medium-sized enterprises, to incentivize investment in employee retraining and facilitate collaboration with post-secondary institutions. The global fight against climate change offers a prime opportunity for colleges and institutes to work with those industries that need employees who are equipped to tackle these challenges. As new technologies and processes are adopted to limit carbon emissions and adapt to climate change across the country, Canada would benefit from adopting a national framework to guide the provincial and territorial process of integrating climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies in post-secondary education.

As the federal government moves to put green guidelines in place for industry, curricula will need to be adjusted to align with employers’ emerging needs. Focusing on green skills will be essential in a low-carbon economy, but also to ensure that Canadians are equipped to move into new industries as they emerge.

Although the EKOS survey shows additional support is needed, especially to promote access to reskilling, colleges and institutes across the country are already focused on providing the hands-on, employment-focused training Canadians value. With over 95 percent of Canadians, and 86 percent of Indigenous people, living within 50 km of their local college or institute, their ability to meet the needs of both learners and employers where they live will remain essential to Canada’s future success.

The survey polled 1,030 Canadians from August 13 to 21 using EKOS’ online research panel. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/- 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Photo: Shutterstock by PureSolution

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Denise Amyot
Denise Amyot is the president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan), which is the national and international voice of Canada’s colleges, institutes, CEGEPs and polytechnics.

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