‘Back to school’ can mean you too — if we remove barriers to lifelong learning

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 re-skilling by 2025. The fall reminds us that learning is lifelong, and the invitation is open to everyone.

Yet Canada needs to remove a few critical barriers to lifelong learning.

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 report 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, 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 skills development. The Canada Training credit, for example, is a refundable tax credit available to help Canadians with the cost of eligible training fees.

Navigation is also a problem. Many workers don’t know where to find relevant industry-aligned training. This is where polytechnic education shines. The polytechnic model is built around timely, industry-relevant education, developed in partnership with business.

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

At Algonquin College, we saw more than 31,000 registrations for continuing education and professional development courses in the 2020-21 academic year, with offerings focused on business skills, project management and IT.

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

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 road map 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.

About the Author

Claude Brulé, President and CEO, Algonquin College

Claude Brulé is president and CEO at Algonquin College in Ottawa and a director on the board of Polytechnics Canada.