Why does Ontario need short, flexible credentials?

This is an excerpt from Pichette, J., Rizk, J., & Brumwell, S. (2021). Making Sense of the Micro: Building an evidence base for Ontario’s Micro-Credentials. Journal of Innovation in Polytechnic Education, 3(1), 10-14. This article has been republished with permission from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Short, skill-focused courses and associated credentials are not new. Many employers and organizations have long offered in-house training and other informal learning opportunities for professional development and retention (Oliver, 2019). Powered, in part, by advancements in digital technology and evolving labour market demands, micro-credentials have emerged as a new form of focused learning with the potential to respond to both the modern hiring needs of employers and the training needs of adults looking to advance or pivot in the labour market.

HEQCO defines micro-credentials as being tied to short learning opportunities that are focused on a discrete set of skills, knowledge or attributes. They provide more targeted training than traditional degrees, certificates and diplomas (Pichette et al., 2021), which, at least in theory, makes them highly appealing to employers. Canada’s Advisory Committee on Economic Growth notes that fewer Canadians are working for one employer over the course of their careers. This trend is discouraging employers from investing significant training dollars in their staff. Small and medium-sized enterprises in particular—which employ most private-sector workers in Canada—“often lack the resources to develop internal training programs” (Advisory Committee on Economic Growth, 2017). In the absence, or reduction, of traditional entry-level roles and staff development programs, micro-credentials could position employers to identify qualified applicants more easily and confidently by certifying a prospective hire’s specific competencies. At the same time, micro-credentials could serve as a low-cost option for employers to invest in skill development, enabling affordable, on-the-job upskilling and in turn supporting employee retention. 

Micro-credentials also stand to serve citizens and governments by acting as an essential feature of an effective lifelong learning system. In a 2019 publication, HEQCO researchers put forward the Lifelong Learning Model, adapted from McGowan and Shipley (2017) and depicted below.

NOTE. Adapted from McGowan & Shipley (2017).
[Image description: Comparison of a “traditional” and linear model of learning where you learn, work, then retire, versus a lifelong learning model where you learn foundational skills, continuously upskill as you work, then retire.]

Rather than preparing students for a lifetime of work with one employer, the model illustrates the need to support longer careers, where job loss and job change are the norm. In this model, traditional postsecondary and K–12 sectors are relied on to build a foundation of transferable skills. Layered on top of that foundation, postsecondary institutions and employers are responsible for providing opportunities to “top up” transferable skills and foundational knowledge with job-specific training during adulthood. With the trend of declining long-term employment in mind, HEQCO authors argued,

When adult learners require retraining or upskilling, they should have access to flexible programs that recognize prior learning and experience, are aligned with employer needs and are rigorously evaluated to ensure quality and market value. Such programs should lead to an employer-recognized credential that is portable between postsecondary institutions to allow for learning progression. (Pichette et al., 2019, p. 11)

The upskilling aspect of the Lifelong Learning Model is particularly important in times of displacement—something many Canadians are currently or have recently experienced in connection to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Statistics Canada (2020), “From February to April, 5.5 million Canadian workers were affected by the COVID-19 economic shutdown. This included a drop in employment of 3.0 million and a COVID-related increase in absences from work of 2.5 million.” Research suggests the Canadians whose jobs were affected by the pandemic will fare better if they have access to training opportunities. One study found that displaced workers who pursued postsecondary education within a year of losing their jobs earned almost  $7,000 more in the long term than those who did not (Frenette, Upward & Wright, 2011). Another study of Canadians receiving employment insurance (EI) found that recipients who invested in skills development saw more pronounced positive effects on employment and earnings than other groups of EI recipients (Handouyahia, Roberge, Gringras, Haddad & Awad, 2016).

Meanwhile, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (2015) found that laid-off workers who seek new employment immediately after losing their jobs without pursuing upskilling opportunities experience lower earnings and a higher frequency of part-time work. With job loss and job change becoming an increasingly common experience for adult workers and employers (Manyika et al., 2017), short, flexible and affordable learning opportunities focused on teaching job-relevant skills will be key to adapting and thriving over the long-term. The Ontario government recognizes this; in its 2020 budget the government announced nearly $60 million for a micro-credential strategy. When speaking about a post-COVID-19 world, the Minister of Colleges and Universities touted micro-credentials as an opportunity for people who have been affected by the pandemic to retool and advance their careers, in a matter of weeks at a fraction of the cost of a typical degree or diploma (Taylor, 2020).

Read the full journal and HEQCO’s full report.

About the Authors

Jackie Pichette, HEQCO

Jackie is the Director of Policy, Research and Partnerships at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Jessica Rizk, Conference Board of Canada

Jessica is a senior research associate at the Conference Board of Canada.

Sarah Brumwell, HEQCO

Sarah is a senior researcher at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.