Canadian workers need a comprehensive source of information that links training programs to skills. All players in the economy will benefit.

Amid the many uncertainties that this new year brings, we can make one prediction with confidence: In 2021 – and beyond – many Canadians will need some kind of training to ensure they have the skills needed to succeed in their current job or to find a new one.

However, as of today, Canada has no information system that would help workers in need of reskilling to find suitable education and training options that could provide sought-after skills.

The pressure to learn new skills has been building for some time and has been thrown into sharp relief. New technologies such as advanced robotics, blockchains, and augmented reality, are transforming the world of work, whether it’s running a warehouse, handling financial transactions, or constructing new buildings.

The coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic crisis have only ramped up that pressure.

Working and learning from home have accelerated the advancement of these and other technologies that are now part of our daily lives – from learning to effectively facilitate conferences, workshops and team-building exercises using Zoom or TeamViewer, to schoolteachers and university professors designing courses that are delivered virtually.

At the same time, many workers who have lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic now face the daunting prospect of plunging into entirely new careers.

Effective training and skills programs will be central to helping these and other workers succeed in their current career path or to transition to entirely new ones. Such training can range from a half-day workshop on how to work collaboratively with a warehouse-organizing robot, or a five-year apprenticeship which integrates augmented reality tools and interfaces into the curriculum. But whatever shape it takes, these training programs will be successful only if Canadians can accurately identify the skills required for specific jobs, find the course or program that best teaches those skills, and have the ability and financial means to engage in that training.

For now, that is easier said than done. Despite the vast array of training options, it is difficult for Canadians to find answers to some basic questions: What training is available to me to learn how to do a particular task at work? Where can I learn the skills I need? Are online courses effective? Are there university or college programs available that provide the skills I need without a four-year commitment? Are training options in my home city or province as good as those in other parts of the country?

According to surveys by the Labour Market Information Council (LMIC), half of Canadian workers (25-54 years old) want more detailed information on the skills required for specific jobs. Indeed, except for salary/wage data, no other type of workplace information is more sought after than that pertaining to skills.

In a new paper for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Mapping Canada’s Training Ecosystem: Much Needed and Long Overdue, we outline a blueprint for a comprehensive training information system that would link — or “map” — the skills sought by workers and employers to programs offered by universities, colleges and training specialists, as well as industry apprenticeship schemes.

The system mapping we propose would comprise three interlocking elements:

  • an up-to-date database of training and education programs and providers;
  • a classification of skills and other requirements for the widest possible range of jobs; and
  • a way to link the training database to the specific requirements of each job.

Such a comprehensive system would help individuals understand the skills requirements of various jobs and to find training that is best-suited to their needs and aspirations. Workers would benefit from improved job satisfaction and career planning. For employers, an efficient mapping system holds the promise of a substantial boost to productivity at a time when a serious skills shortage is looming. Manufacturers have recently cited a scarcity of skills as one of their top concerns after the pandemic-related disruptions, according to the LMIC.

Make no mistake, this is an ambitious and complex undertaking. According to Statistics Canada, there are more than 2,000 post-secondary and 64 vocational training institutions across the country. A complicating factor is that the provinces have jurisdiction over education, while labour market policy is a shared federal-provincial responsibility.

Further compounding the challenge is that system mapping must take into account the current shift taking place in most countries from training aimed at mainly providing credentials to training focused on the development and recognition of specific skills. Formal credentials, such as diplomas, degrees and certificates, are meant to signal that the holder possesses a certain set of skills and knowledge. Yet, as every employer knows, most give only a limited picture of an individual’s real abilities and potential.

We are confident that an efficient system mapping can overcome these obstacles, but only if some important conditions are met.

First and foremost is the need for close collaboration between employers, training providers and government agencies at all levels. Players with key roles in launching such a venture could include the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), Forum of Labour Market Ministers (FLMM), LMIC and the Future Skills Centre, among others.

We believe that a phased approach would be the best way of getting an effective, pan-Canadian mapping system off the ground. The first step would be a pilot project limited to two or three provinces or territories.

We envisage that the pilot would be implemented in stages, as follows:

  • Identify key players in each province or territory involved in funding, monitoring and administering training and education.
  • Use formal and informal networks to create a comprehensive list of education and training programs available to potential learners.
  • Survey key players to gather feedback on the specific skills linked to training programs, with an emphasis on the accuracy of these linkages.
  • Link each training program to the list of associated skills.
  • Identify common themes from the linked list of training programs and skills – for example, the time needed to complete a program.
  • Design a suitable website, app or other online interface for the system’s end users such as potential learners and employers interested in providing training to their employees.
  • Set up focus groups from a chosen target group to test the list and interface.

Our paper is an urgent call to action. Without a trusted source of information that links training programs to skills, Canadians will have little choice but to muddle through by poking around online and relying on word-of-mouth advice. Some may end up wasting time, money and energy on unsuitable training programs. Many will not invest in training at all, hampering their ability to make a fresh start in their careers.

A successful mapping of Canada’s training programs to skills development stands to benefit not only workers and employers who gain most directly from smart training choices, but the entire Canadian economy. However, the challenge and scale of mapping Canada’s education and training systems to skills should not be underestimated. It is therefore essential to begin with a pilot project that can test and gather lessons learned to determine how best to move toward full implementation. We believe now is the time to test bold initiatives.

Photo: Shutterstock/By Black Salmon