Polytechnics are preparing Canada’s next-generation workforce

It’s no secret that unrelenting technological progress and chronic labour shortages challenge Canada’s ability to remain prosperous and compete globally. Unfortunately, traditional academic learning doesn’t necessarily prepare young talent for the 21st century work world.

That’s why polytechnics, with their delivery of hands-on, technical, and career-focused education, are increasingly being viewed as the best solution. But Polytechnics Canada CEO Sarah Watts-Rynard prefers to describe the situation more magnanimously.

She says, “A lot is going on in the education sector. It’s a crowded space with many choices, and polytechnics are looking to differentiate themselves from colleges and private institutions.”

Watts-Rynard points out that polytechnics are becoming the education venue of choice not just for high school graduates, but also for people who already have degrees as well as professionals seeking to upgrade their skills or switch careers. “There’s no end to the learning curve today,” she says. “In fact, ongoing education is a must, considering the rapid pace with which technology is changing industry.”

Indeed, Polytechnics Canada estimates that 30 per cent of people who enrol in polytechnics already have a scholastic degree or have forged a career in industry. “There’s hardly a sector that isn’t being transformed by high tech, so the large percentage of professionals coming to our institutions isn’t surprising,” Watts-Rynard says.

The non-profit Polytechnics Canada represents 13 leading research-intensive, publicly supported polytechnics and institutes of technology. It advocates for federal action in areas where polytechnics provide solutions for Canada’s economic wellbeing, both domestically and on the global stage.

Nowhere is polytechnics’ ability to provide solutions more apparent than in the realm of artificial intelligence, and Watts-Rynard believes they have a great opportunity to help Canada become a technology leader globally. “As innovation intermediaries, polytechnics can offer fully equipped labs and workshops in which business can experiment,” she says. “They can also train next generation talent and fill labour gaps when companies adopt new technology.”

Polytechnics are also making strides to remedy the construction industry’s acute labour shortage, which in turn exacerbates Canada’s housing shortage. A number of institutions are experimenting with low- or no-cost programs in the skilled trades as a way to attract young people (Humber College in Toronto offers six different tuition-free pre-apprenticeship programs in high-priority trades).

Another focus for polytechnics is cyber security, where people within different industries who can deal with or prevent attacks are in short supply. Conestoga College’s ConHacks student hackathon gives participants practical exposure to cyber security threats, refining their technical skills and preparing them for future workplace challenges. Meanwhile, Seneca Polytechnic offers stackable micro-credentials that enable professionals to upgrade their skills to reflect current security concerns.

Looking to the future, Watts-Rynard identifies Ottawa’s push toward achieving its net zero carbon goals by 2050 as another major opportunity for polytechnics. “Many of our members are already helping move businesses further in the green direction,” she says.

Polytechnics’ close association with industry is hardly the only reason for their effectiveness. At every stage, employers inform the learning at these institutions, and many of them also serve as instructors or mentors. “They’re invaluable in providing updates to curricula,” Watts-Rynard says.

Also, polytechnics are evolving, with an increasing number of them becoming innovation hubs. One example is Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s on-going project to transform 11 outdated buildings spread across Saskatoon into a centre of excellence in applied learning and research, where technology-rich teaching will produce job-ready graduates in everything from health and bio sciences to hospitality, digital business, and mining. “These innovation centers facilitate taking the risk out of innovative ideas being brought to fruition,” Watts-Rynard says.

As industries continue to transform and aging workforces retire (four million Canadians in total between 2017 and 2026, according to Employment and Social Development Canada), key economic sectors in Canada face the challenges of keeping pace.

Watts-Rynard concludes, “We’ve already gained recognition for mitigating the impact of these transformations, and I truly believe polytechnics will be central in achieving Canada’s economic and social success moving forward.”

About the Author

Robin Brunet, Writer, Postmedia