How is education different at Canadian polytechnics?

Canada’s polytechnics are taking a bold approach to post-secondary learning by focusing on experiential education that is hands-on and practical. Programs on offer are industry-driven to help students develop critical workplace skills through work-integrated learning opportunities.

Based in Ottawa, Sarah Watts-Rynard is CEO of Polytechnics Canada. Watts-Rynard has spent most of her career in leadership roles in the non-profit sector, including eight years with the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.

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. According to the association, 94,500 students graduated from one of Canada’s 13 polytechnics in 2020 with a degree, diploma or certificate.

“At Polytechnics Canada, we ask ‘what is the federal government trying to achieve and how are polytechnics positioned to support solutions in those areas?’ Polytechnics can be truly responsive, teaching skills that are immediately applicable, such as green technology, cybersecurity, nursing and technicians,” says Watts-Rynard.

A member of Polytechnics Canada, Saskatchewan Polytechnic is our province’s primary place for post-secondary technical education and skills training. In fact, Saskatchewan Polytechnic provides the key in-school portion of apprenticeship training for 20 skilled trades (as well as offering many other programs).

In what ways do polytechnics differ from other post-secondary institutions, such as universities? Polytechnics are known to take the lead in innovation and to experiment with new ways to deliver training. Watts-Rynard describes how these differences give students an advantage in the 2022 workforce, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has sped up technological change in most sectors.

“We are an important talent pipeline. Polytechnics produce confident and competent graduates. They produce workers who have been on the frontline of the pandemic — especially skilled trades and health care workers. We have not found it to be the case that there is a decrease in interest in nursing or other health care professions.” The pandemic has led to hybrid models of teaching, however, she points out that this is “not a great time to put students in clinical placements.”

Watts-Rynard says that enrollment in skilled trades is “procyclical.” This means that there is a positive correlation with the overall state of the economy, with apprenticeships rising “when times are good.”

However, this is complicated by demographics and Canada’s aging population. The end result is that skilled trades are in-demand during less certain times.

According to a report by RBC entitled Powering Up: Preparing Canada’s Skilled Trades for a Post-Pandemic Economy, more than 700,000 skilled tradespeople are expected to retire by 2028. With a government stimulus-fueled infrastructure renewal, Powering Up says that “the most severe shortages will be among trades critical to the coming infrastructure boom, including industrial mechanics, welders and boilermakers.”

As well, Canada can expect a boom in green economy and environmental projects. Polytechnics Canada is committed to supporting the green economy and teaching the skills necessary for small businesses to strive towards a net zero future.

“Up to 30 per cent of students enrolled at Canadian polytechnics have some other credentials,” says Watts-Rynard. She gives the example of her daughter, who earned with a bachelor of science degree in biology. A two-year veterinary technology program at a polytechnic nicely augments that biology degree and is now providing her daughter with the hands-on skills for an in-demand career.

In addition, international students find polytechnics to be a good place to upskill, reskill and make connections in a new country. Watts-Rynard notes that there has been less of a decline in international student enrollment than was first expected during the pandemic.

Watts-Rynard refers to a current economic trend called the ‘great resignation’. The term was coined to describe the large number of employees who have voluntarily resigned from their jobs, beginning in early 2021. This economic trend is a paradox because the COVID-19 pandemic has created labour shortages and low unemployment rates.

The great resignation is often driven by individuals re-assessing their happiness in their current jobs. With short cycle programs and a tradition of enrolling mid-career students, the upside is that polytechnics are ideally suited to help Canadians reimagining their skill sets and to upskill their existing credentials for a new career.

About the Author

Elizabeth Ireland, Writer, Postmedia