More support needed to help Canadians reskill at post-secondary institutions

This op-ed was originally published in Policy Options on January 20, 2020. 


Canada’s rapidly changing labour market creates both 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, which 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.) The results suggest that Canadians recognize the value of post-secondary education for youth, but that they also believe that people increasingly need access to retraining throughout their careers in order to keep up with disruptive technologies and changes in the workplace.

The survey also 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 also agree that businesses should advise post-secondary institutions to make sure students graduate with 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, and this goes up to 78 percent among those aged 18-34. Respondents in the prime retraining demographic – those between ages 35-54 – are slightly less likely than the national average to prefer accessing training in a classroom at a post-secondary institution, making clear the need for a variety of training options.

We also see split preferences when it comes to online learning – 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 remain flexible, especially as they serve an increasingly diverse student population, including displaced workers, or those seeking to keep up with changes in their industry.

Different barriers to education also remain a concern for many Canadians, showing the need for greater support, including from 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 are barriers to retraining. The time commitment related to getting training was also 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 Future of Jobs report, which found 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 stated 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, with younger, highly educated and wealthy respondents feeling as if they had sufficient opportunities and support for retraining. Canadians with an income of $50,000 or less and those with only a high school education felt less likely to have sufficient support and opportunities to change careers (35 percent and 34 percent respectively).

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

Here they will find that colleges and institutes are ready partners with 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 ready to hit the ground running. Colleges and institutes also work with employers to meet their in-house retraining efforts, often providing contract training at an employers’ request 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 that 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 changing careers. Still, we have to recognize that Canadians need flexibility in how training options are designed and delivered, and more support to remove the risk from investing in their on-going learning.

This will require concerted efforts from post-secondary institutions, governments, and employers who all 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 and many institutions that are already working hard to deliver for their communities.

To meet current and future needs, colleges and institutes recommend increasing investments in flexible retraining and support mechanisms at all levels of government.  This should include better access to Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) services that allow a learner to earn credits for their real-life knowledge, resulting in shorter training times, lower costs and a faster return to the workforce. PLAR is already offered in one way or another at 95 percent of Canada’s public colleges and institutes, but not systematically for every program.

Governments should also engage with employers, and particularly with small and medium-sized enterprises, to incentivize investment in employee retraining and to 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 are in need of employees 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 integration of climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies in postsecondary education.

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

Though 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 50km 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.


Denise Amyot
President and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada