Canadians are upskilling and reskilling at polytechnics

Labour force challenges could impact Canada’s future economic growth and innovation. These challenges include modest population growth, labour market shortages and skill mismatches within our current workforce.

A recent survey commissioned by Polytechnics Canada found that 90 per cent of Canadian employees believe skills development is important. Nearly 50 per cent of workers feel the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of upskilling and reskilling to advance their careers.

Polytechnics Canada is a non-profit association that represents 13 publicly funded polytechnics, colleges and institutes of technology in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Saskatchewan Polytechnic, with four campuses across the province, is a member of Polytechnics Canada.

Sarah Watts-Rynard is CEO of Polytechnics Canada. She notes Canadians’ surging interest in upskilling and reskilling, often in the middle of their careers. Based in Ottawa, Watts-Rynard has spent most of her own career in leadership roles in the non-profit sector.

Watts-Rynard describes upskilling as “adding on or keeping up” in a current occupation or career. That could be learning a new technology or adjusting a business model to changing consumer tastes. On the other hand, reskilling is when an individual is displaced from a current role and needs to train for a new occupation in a totally new environment.

Ongoing changes in technology and global markets need a Canadian workforce that is flexible and open to continuous learning. For decades, polytechnics have helped Canadians achieve their career goals by delivering job-relevant training programs.

Watts-Rynard refers to individuals who are keen on intentional learning after their teens and early 20s as lifelong learners.

“Everything is changing so fast. I’m not that worried about new entrants into the workforce. It is mid-career or late-career employees in their 40s or 50s who are looking at the clock who are a concern. These employees could still have 20-plus years left in the workforce. If someone has aging parents, children of their own and a mortgage, lifelong learning can go on the backburner,” says Watts-Rynard.

Polytechnics are ranked as the most appealing external training providers by Canadians. Time is a big barrier for Canadians who want to upskill or reskill, especially for those with busy lives, who want to be able to finish a course in less than six months. Luckily, polytechnics can offer flexible courses which take an average of 37 hours to complete. Plus, classes are offered on evenings and weekends, as well as virtually.

“A multi-year pandemic, constant change and labour market shortages mean that employers might not have enough people to grow a business and be successful. I encourage employers to look at who they already have on staff and how to keep them. Upskilling and reskilling are a big part of the conversation.This could also mean skills training for women, Indigenous people, new Canadians and other groups that are traditionally unrepresented in the workforce,” says Watts-Rynard.

Another issue that feels specific to the 2020s is friendshoring. This is the concept of limiting national supply chain networks to allies and friendly countries to limit geopolitical risk. With our natural resources (including critical minerals) Canada is well-positioned for the future but, again, a workforce with the right skills is necessary.

“I’m fascinated by our member stories. Employers are now looking for skills in cybersecurity, data security, robotics and other industries that were previously offshored or slow to move forward. Suddenly, with the pandemic and geopolitical issues, these are skills that are important for Canadians to have and for this work to be kept inhouse,” says Watts-Rynard.

Polytechnics offer nearly 20,000 courses in a variety of fields including health care, manufacturing, information technology and the environment. The applied, or experiential, learning opportunities available at a polytechnic institute are ideal for adults interested in hands-on work and maximizing close connections to industry.

About the Author

Elizabeth Ireland, Writer, Postmedia