Polytechnic institutions house countless options for professional development, continuing education and personal interest training, says Sarah Watts-Rynard, CEO of Polytechnics Canada. (Contributed photo)

Polytechnic institutions house countless options for professional development, continuing education and personal interest training, says Sarah Watts-Rynard, CEO of Polytechnics Canada. (Contributed photo)

Businesses critical to success of lifelong learning

One of the most surprising impacts of COVID-19 has been the reshaping of Canada’s workforce. While workplaces were adopting new technology and rethinking critical skill needs before the pandemic, it was remote work, school closures and health concerns that tipped the scales. While the Canadian economy has now replaced more jobs than were lost at the height of the pandemic, high rates of job vacancy speak to a critical labour shortages in the months ahead.

As Canadians get back to work, we need to re-establish labour market engagement and purpose, job security and opportunities for individual growth.

This will rely, in large part, on a renewed commitment to skills and talent development across Canadian businesses and in workers at every level.

Employers have long pointed to difficulty finding people with the skills they need to operate and grow their businesses. While polytechnics – the country’s largest institutes of applied and technical learning – are committed to delivering workplace-ready talent, no employer can rely on new people alone. It is time to turn our attention to the mid-career workforce.

The scope of this massive challenge? According to Statistics Canada, there were more than 19 million Canadians in the workforce in November 2021.

It is time to apply a model that has worked tremendously well for students to the broader workforce, adapting work-integrated learning into opportunities for learning-integrated work.

Students benefit considerably from opportunities to apply their skills in the workplace during their education. Work-integrated learning takes the form of co-op placements, internships, practicums and a wide range of other experiential learning. It helps put learning into context, establish employability skills, connect with an employer network and build confidence.

Given disruption across the labour market, whether due to the changing nature of work or emerging skill requirements, lifelong learning is increasingly urgent. As demographics dictate a shrinking workforce and longer working lives, it is unlikely that one degree or diploma will be enough to sustain a whole career.

Polytechnic institutions are well-positioned to help businesses and their employees adapt to this reality. They house countless options for professional development, continuing education and personal interest training. They have capacity to customize training to the needs of a given sector, occupation, region or business.

While the Canada Training Benefit was designed to support individuals with an interest in enhancing their skills, employers are the missing link. Meanwhile, businesses that make room for interns and co-op students have been able to access government-funded wage subsidies targeting the early-career talent pipeline.

The federal government could equally consider incentives for employers considering their broader skill needs and the costs associated with co-developing focused, workplace-relevant training. As Budget 2021 investments in upskilling roll out, these are pragmatic ways to ensure those dollars are used to maximum effect.

Governments can also play a role by navigating both employers and employees to where this industry- and career-relevant training is offered.

Here, polytechnics are a frontline solution. They offer thousands of industry-relevant training programs to meet today’s needs but can also develop training in areas identified as mission-critical. Programs in areas like digital marketing, entrepreneurship, business resilience and workplace diversity are relevant, efficient and just-in-time.

While this effort calls for government intervention, it cannot be government-led. Employer engagement and buy-in is critical.

Businesses must identify the skills needed as their workplaces transition or transform, as new technology is adopted or the market changes. Employees need to understand how they can contribute to this transformation and know that their employers are invested in their success.

What’s more, learning-integrated work must be accompanied by workplace practice and mentorship that puts training into context. Learners need opportunities to apply their skills and be rewarded for their efforts. This requires a tangible, ongoing commitment by employers.

The term “lifelong learning” has been around for generations, yet rarely is it invoked to describe an adult’s career journey. Instead, responsibility for upskilling and reskilling has been laid at the feet of workers, many with family and financial obligations that make it difficult to return to organized learning until they hit a career roadblock.

If we want to solve today’s skill and employment challenges, we need effective employee engagement and retention tools. Mid-career skills training could be the ticket.

Sarah Watts-Rynard is the CEO of Polytechnics Canada.