Polytechnics can help fill Canada’s talent gaps

When I ask business leaders what keeps them up at night, it is not only about supply chains, inflation, or rising commodity prices. The No. 1 concern is about talent.

How do I fill critical staff vacancies in a tight labour market? Where can I find workers who are digitally literate? How can my employees upgrade their skills in a way that makes my company more innovative and competitive?

Meeting those just-in-time talent needs is becoming one of Canada’s biggest challenges, exacerbated by lower than usual immigration numbers, aging demographics, the ability to work remotely for firms in other countries, and a pandemic-fuelled withdrawal from the labour market.

Our post-secondary educational institutions need to work at this intersection of business needs and talent development.

At Saskatchewan Polytechnic, for example, we are addressing acute labour shortages in the long-term care sector with a new program to train supportive care assistants. After more than 20 months of immense pressure on the healthcare system, we are finding new ways to ensure the sector has the people it needs in critical roles.

Six weeks of online training followed by four-month paid work placements is a short-cycle solution in a sector facing dire shortages of long-term and home care staff. It also helps people who were displaced by the pandemic to jump-start their careers in high-demand roles.

COVID-19 also prompted businesses across sectors to consider the adoption of new technology, making an already emerging need for enhanced digital skills even greater. While we embed digital skills across our programs, we are also using our new Digital Integration Centre of Excellence (DICE) to help industry partners solve a breadth of data challenges, including data integrity, transmission, analysis, and storage.

At the centre, businesses and non-profit organizations can identify useful business statistics or explore opportunities to use machine learning and artificial intelligence. In addition to a team of specialists, industry partners have access to exceptional computational facilities, faculty expertise, and talented student researchers. This same talent pool will propel digital adoption and awareness into the broader labour market.

Maintaining this level of responsiveness relies heavily on close relationships with industry. That’s why we work with program advisory committees that include nearly 700 experts who understand where the labour market is headed and what skills graduates will need to succeed.

Having relevant programs and curricula is only the starting point. We also need to ensure learners have opportunities to apply what they’re learning in workplace settings. Work-integrated learning in the form of apprenticeships, practicums, clinical placements and co-ops give our students opportunities to combine the theory they learn in class with real-life situations. This is great resume-building experience for students, but also gives employers a chance to test new talent and find the right fit for their business.

Yet, our business partners tell us that talented new graduates are only one piece of the workforce puzzle. They also require upskilling for their existing employees who need to stay abreast of change across their operations.

Here, we’ve introduced Surge Micro-credentials. These are short, focused courses to accelerate skills development and provide learners with an industry-recognized micro-credential or digital badge. 

For example, our Small Business Taxes course focuses on the tax obligations of business, including goods and service tax, remittances and exemptions, allowing users to explore various types of business ownership. Our delivery options—real-time sessions with industry professionals or self-paced online offerings—recognize that those at mid-career must often schedule learning around other commitments.

When challenges around talent stand in the way of business success, growth, and productivity, dealing with societal issues, from climate change to Indigenous reconciliation, becomes much more difficult. We can’t hope to be competitive on the world stage, or, for that matter, maintain our standard of living.

That’s why, when business leaders tell me “talent” is keeping them awake at night, I tell them to come by for a closer look at the solutions polytechnics across Canada are implementing every day.

About the Author

Dr. Larry Rosia, President and CEO, Saskatchewan Polytechnic

As President and CEO of Saskatchewan Polytechnic, Dr. Larry Rosia leads the province’s primary provider of technical education and skills training. He is the President of Post-Secondary International Network, a Past Chair of Polytechnics Canada Board of Directors and serves on Boards including the CANARIE, Community Colleges for International Development, Polytechnics Canada, the International Mineral Innovation Institute, Skills Canada (Saskatchewan), the Chair Academy International Leadership Board, the Saskatchewan Post-Secondary International Education Council, the Saskatchewan Labour Market Task Force, World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics and the University of Regina Senate. Dr. Rosia is an alumnus of the University of Alberta and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, and earned his PhD in academic leadership at the University of Calgary.