“Back to school” means you too

Claude Brulé

Another “back to school” season is upon us – but education is not for youth alone. The World Economic Forum estimates that half of all employees globally will need reskilling by 2025. The fall reminds us that learning is lifelong, and the invitation is open to everyone.

Yet Canada still needs to remove a few critical barriers to lifelong learning.  This is an essential step on the path to creating a resilient and ready workforce.  

With an era of skills shortages ahead, it is crucial that we prepare workers at all stages of their career for tomorrow’s challenges. Those unprepared for today’s economy will find it increasingly difficult to keep up.

According to new research by Polytechnics Canada, when asked why they would pursue professional development, nearly half of Canadians pointed to COVID-19 as a catalyst. Employers, facing hard-to-fill vacancies as economic activity ramps up again, report that they’re keen to offer training to existing staff.

The good news is that motivation to engage in mid-career upskilling is at an all-time high.

If we stand a chance of capitalizing on this moment, we need to remove the barriers.

Cost is the first barrier.  Unfortunately, while more than 90 per cent of Canadian employers and workers believe in the importance of skills development throughout one’s career, most believe they are on their own when it comes to carving out time and finding the resources to return to school. This leaves both employers and employees in a tough spot, with costs on the rise and resources stretched.

It’s time we made going back to school easy for everyone.  Governments needs to put more resources into making existing supports and services more widely known.

An alarming 96 per cent of Canadians are unaware of financial supports available to offset the cost of their skills development and training.  The Canada Training credit, for example, is a refundable tax credit available to help Canadians with the cost of eligible training fees. It can be claimed for tuition and other fees paid for courses taken in any given tax year. 

Navigation is also a problem.  Many mid-skill workers don’t know where to find relevant industry-aligned training that works for them. They need short, flexible learning solutions.  This is where polytechnic education really shines.  The polytechnic model is built around timely, industry-relevant education, developed in partnership with business. 

A dozen polytechnic institutions across Canada collectively offer nearly 20,000 short-cycle courses.  Program costs are typically modest, with both in-person and online options built to accommodate the full-time workforce.

At Algonquin College Corporate Training, for example, we have been working with local partners to address today’s urgent requirement for cyber security, developing programming to tackle current and emerging IT security threats.

We saw more than 31,000 registrations for continuing education and professional development courses in the 2020-21 academic year, with offerings focused on leadership and business skills, project management and business analysis, soft skills and IT. 

A big part of Algonquin College’s Corporate Training’s success has been our ability to quickly convert our extensive portfolio of courses for virtual delivery, allowing us to respond to businesses’ training requirements that arose at the beginning of the pandemic.

We knew the combination of people working from home and business models rapidly shifting would lead to an intense influx of interest in our varied upskilling offerings. Only days after the first pandemic lockdown, 1,500 people stepped forward to take training.  It was a gratifying reminder that upskilling is broadly embraced when it is career-relevant and easy to access.

What Canadians need is a roadmap to resources like these, tying together both labour market demand and the specific skills required. Canadians need to better understand how to build on the skills and experience they already have. 

Canadians are ready to embrace lifelong learning. Now our governments need to make “back to school” a priority for all.Claude Brulé is President and CEO at Algonquin College in Ottawa and a Director on the Board of Polytechnics Canada.