Although there is a strong consensus that Canadians will experience labour market disruption in the coming years, there is still considerable debate regarding how governments and workers should respond.

Given the scale of potential disruption and questions around the effectiveness of training, we need to consider carefully what role training can and should play. This is especially critical given the emergence of new approaches to skills training that seem to hold out promise for enabling successful transitions to new employment.

The last 30 years of research on the effectiveness of skills training has yielded mixed results. Evaluation of pilot projects to retrain dislocated American workers in the 1980s showed no impacts on re-employment outcomes, and large-scale evaluations of federally funded training programs in the 1990s and 2000s more or less mirrored these results. This has cast doubt on the proposition that skills training can meet tomorrow’s labour market needs.

Other evaluations have found skills training to have more positive effects. For example, one that assesses community college training for older displaced workers in Washington State found training had positive impacts on long-term earnings. Recent Canadian research also shows substantial returns from skills training. Particularly notable is the latest evaluation of Canada’s Labour Market Development Agreements (Canada’s primary funding vehicle for workforce development), which demonstrated positive impacts of training on both employment and earnings outcomes.

These mixed results suggest that not all training is created equal. Whether or not training is effective depends on a range of factors, including the quality of the training and to what extent it is aligned with the needs of employers and of the labour market. When we ask whether training works, perhaps this is the wrong question. Perhaps we should be should be asking instead: How do we make skills training work? This question is especially important when we consider how to make training work not only for today’s labour market, but for tomorrow’s as well. Workers in a wide range of industries are expected to be profoundly impacted by technological change, and retraining may be necessary for many to stay in the labour force. It is vital to know how training can minimize the impacts these individuals may experience from disruption.

Practitioners are already experimenting with new ways to make skills training work, and we need to bring these innovations to the forefront. Experimenting with these models provides a basis to begin building a better understanding of how to make training work, for whom, and in what context.

One innovative approach to organizing post-secondary and workforce development is the one offered by the “Career Pathways” framework developed in the United States. By providing a series of connected training opportunities, which are aligned with industry-relevant credentials, it combines traditional college training and shorter-term training in order to prepare adults for in-demand jobs. The model incorporates three distinguishing features.

  • Workers can enter training from different points in their careers, depending on their skill level. This flexibility creates wider access, as workers with lower skills have entry-level access points, while those with more experience and education can access more advanced training.
  • The training has multiple exit points: each step in the pathway focuses on fully preparing people to work in specific jobs. This modular approach allows learners to transition quickly into the labour market, and also to return easily to school when they are ready. This helps reduce the opportunity costs for adult learners, who know they can quickly apply the skills they’ve gained to find better work.
  • The model includes career guidance and supports, ensuring that participants have a clear understanding of how to advance their careers and providing support services that encourage retention and completion.

What makes the programs offered though this approach a good way to meet the skills needs of the future? In addition to the three features I have listed, which reduce the barriers often presented to working-age adults who want to participate in training, the modular nature of the approach allows responsiveness to changing skills needs. The model is also built with employers’ needs in mind and requires their active engagement to succeed.

At a higher level, the promise of this model lies in its capacity to work as a general framework for organizing key systems – education, workforce, and support services – in ways that meet the needs of adult learners and deliver skills aligned with the labour market of the future.

The Career Pathways programs have been widely adopted in the US at the local and system levels. Two large-scale demonstration projects are currently in progress, with final evaluation results expected later this year. Several states have already launched system-wide initiatives, and the federal government has institutionalized the approach by integrating a funding framework for the model into the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

In Ontario, several organizations are building on their deep understanding of labour market challenges in specific sectors and incorporating this model to design training that meets immediate employer needs and allows participants to obtain relevant credentials.

Although these initiatives are generating important insights about the value of the approach, system-wide expansion and adoption of these models is constrained by current funding rules. Provincial postsecondary funding is limited to traditional credential programs, and does not cover credential programs shorter than one year. Furthermore, the workforce development and support services required by the model are not funded.

There is a clear gap between where we are now and where we need to be to realize the potential of this approach in Ontario.  So what do we need to do to move forward? An important first step is to bridge the divide between postsecondary policy and workforce development policy. Innovative approaches like Career Pathways combine workforce development supports and services with training that leads to recognized credentials. We must develop funding and programs that help participants access the training and supports they need, when they need them, regardless of their entry point into the training system.

Reorienting our training systems to better meet the needs of adult workers will help address some gaps in our current skills development infrastructure. As the Advisory Council on Economic Growth pointed out in its 2017 report, our system today rests primarily on two pillars – one focused on developing skills before people enter the workforce (K-12 and post-secondary education), and one focused on providing assistance to the unemployed (workforce development). This leaves a gap in support for working adults, many of whom are at risk of displacement due to labour market changes. The Career Pathways approach addresses this gap by combining work and learning to ensure that adult workers have the right skills and certifications to succeed in high-demand sectors in tomorrow’s labour market.

This article is part of the Preparing citizens for the future of work special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock/By pathdoc

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Max Palamar
Max Palamar is director of analytics and evaluation at Blueprint ADE. His work focuses on system transformation and evaluating innovative approaches and programs in workforce development, income security, and housing.
Kelly Pasolli
Kelly is the Director of Research and Innovation at Blueprint. She is passionate about finding new ways to generate and use evidence to solve complex challenges. She works with clients and partners to find ways to make more evidence-informed decisions, and shares ideas, lessons and insights from Blueprint’s work with the broader sector.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License