(This article has been translated into French.)
The prospect of short bursts of training that are labour-market relevant for both workers and employers, and backed by a reliable seal of approval, is enticing, to say the least. Employers are acknowledging that investing in training their workforce makes sense to address skills gaps.
Workers could potentially benefit from skills-building that is responsive, timely and relevant, particularly as the rise in gig and non-standard employment means that they may need to gain or demonstrate new skills much more frequently. Microcredentials, a certification of assessed learning associated with specific and relevant skills or competencies, are receiving attention and investment from governments, employers, learners and education and training institutions as a solution to the conundrum of meeting shifting labour and skills needs. Microcredentials are a new way to mobilize workers to acquire and validate skills that meet a labour market need through flexible, short and timely training.
In recent years, a number of provinces have made significant investments in the growth of microcredentials (at least $75 million since 2020), and recommendations to further expand microcredentials have come from business groups like the Business Council of Alberta and the Future Skills Council.
The explosion of their popularity and offerings risks leaving important public policy questions still to be answered about how they will develop and what role they will play in education and training systems across Canada. Will they be able to live up to their promises?
If these concerns are not addressed, the opportunity to truly innovate in how we deliver skills training in a way that serves those most in need will be missed.
How can microcredentials meet skill needs in the labour market?
Credentials such as diplomas or certificates provide employers with a road map that outlines the type of skill sets their employee is likely to have. Microcredentials also need to be viewed as roadmaps for employers in representing skills their employee (or a prospective employee) has attained. The engagement of employers is critical to ensure microcredentials are understood and valued in the labour market. Currently, eCampus Ontario and Ryerson’s Diversity Institute identify the need for employers, learners and educators to engage in a reciprocal relationship (a framework for microcredential development) that promotes trust and value in order for microcredentials to be successful.
The Future Skills Centre (FSC) has invested in initiatives that take this approach. Bow Valley College, for example, has developed an integrated platform that can assess an individual’s skills, connect a learner with training to strengthen or develop new skills, certify the skills and connect with employers. FSC is working with other partners to examine approaches to link workers to fast-track options for developing skills in a variety of industries.
For example, Canada’s aviation sector has been acutely affected by COVID-19. As the sector adjusts, interest has grown in efficient ways for retraining workers so that they can easily move between occupations within the industry. The Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace is testing a microcredential model that can serve as a workforce development solution for industries (particularly ones undergoing similar processes of restructuring), looking to cultivate agile, resilient and multi-skilled workforces fit for the post-pandemic economy.
As well, the EDGE UP program, led by Calgary Economic Development, brings together four local post-secondary institutions to provide training for mid-career professionals looking to transition from the oil and gas sector into Calgary’s rapidly growing technology sector.
Governments should be mindful that the proliferation of microcredentials needs to be anchored to an economic or skills strategy – whether it is sectoral, regional or on some other scale – so it doesn’t further fragment education and training options. They also have an important role to play as employers in determining the value of microcredentials. Public sector employment accounts for about one in five employed Canadians. The extent to which governments recognize and value microcredentials will help to shape their market.
- Policy and funding should connect the dots between education transformation and employer engagement to make sure microcredentials hit the mark.
- All governments should reckon with how they will account for microcredentials as employers.
Who will pursue and make use of microcredentials?
Part of the enthusiasm around microcredentials is that the shorter duration of time and lower costs required to pursue them, and the different platforms that can be used to deliver them, could open up opportunities for more people from different backgrounds to improve their skills. If so, they might reduce inequities in skills development and education attainment.
Canada has high levels of completion of post-secondary education and participation in training, yet we know that some people aren’t able to access those opportunities. Fewer Indigenous Peoples, Black Canadians, persons with disabilities and those from households where parents did not have their own post-secondary experiences pursue post-secondary education. Higher income, younger and unionized workers are more likely to have received training provided by their employers.
An initial review that is forthcoming by researchers at Saint Mary’s University reveals there is work to be done around access to microcredentials by underrepresented people and that users need to be involved in their design to address those concerns. Helpfully, on the cost question, Ontario has announced that it will change rules for its student assistance program to make it easier for people to pursue short training courses like microcredentials, and the Canada Training Benefit introduced in Budget 2019 was designed at least partially with them in mind.
- Research is needed to examine whether microcredentials are being accessed equitably and producing equitable outcomes for all learners.
Who offers microcredentials and under what conditions?
The investments made by provincial governments in the past few years have primarily supported the development of microcredentials at public post-secondary institutions. Those institutions have demonstrated that they can produce – resulting in dozens (maybe hundreds) of new microcredentials. It is a notable development (and show of faith) in systems that are sometimes criticized for moving too slowly and not being responsive to the needs of employers.
Microcredentials are also offered by other types of institutions and training providers from online platforms to private universities and colleges. The regulation of some of these microcredentials and how they interact with both the labour market and microcredentials of public institutions are important to ensuring that there is trust in microcredentials for workers and employers.
In some ways, part of the appeal of microcredentials is that they remain relatively undefined and therefore can mean a lot of different things. How all of the various pieces can support and align with broad labour market and economic development objectives and fit into existing credential and qualifications frameworks remains to be answered. Regardless of how many microcredentials are created, their impact will be limited if they only sit outside of degrees and certificates, or only confer a market advantage that isn’t portable across industries or firms and don’t line up with economic strategy.
A number of countries, notably New Zealand and Singapore, have developed robust frameworks to put microcredentials in context. In Canada, Colleges and Institutes Canada has issued a national framework for microcredentials for its members that has also been signed onto by some provincial counterparts. British Columbia has developed a provincial framework, while Saskatchewan has a guide to microcredentials. These developments need to continue to be shaped as the field evolves and expands.
- Provinces and territories should support microcredentials but work together to define how they fit in the overall education system using a forum like the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.
- Microcredentials should be part of and align with broader strategic objectives.
How will we know if microcredentials are working?
Much has been written about strengths and weaknesses of the labour market information systems in Canada. To know whether microcredentials are having the desired impact of improving skill shortages and the labour market prospects of those who pursue them, we will need good data that captures and allows for reporting on microcredentials.
Unfortunately, many of the tools used to gather labour market information that connect education and training don’t include microcredentials when gathering survey information. This is the case for the census, for example. Capturing the necessary data may be best done through administrative sources that collect that data in an automated and standardized way. Canada also needs to continue to build data systems that show how education and training systems are (and are not) supporting all Canadians to navigate the labour market.
- Education and labour officials need to make sure Statistics Canada and other labour market information systems are prepared to capture microcredential data to understand their impact on the labour market.
Microcredentials seem inevitable and they are changing to meet the shifting labour market in the coming years. The co-ordination challenge is real, but so, too, is the opportunity in front of policy-makers, employers, workers, educators and micro-credential providers to make sure these innovative tools help to navigate a rapidly changing world and that their benefits are shared equitably.
This article is part of the Future of Work and Skills Training special feature series.