Trish Josephs knows what industry customers want from polytechnic institutions. As an executive at many businesses over the past 30 years, she liaised with schools about the kind of workers industry needed.
“I was the customer of a polytechnic institute for three decades across five different industry verticals…and when you’re the customer you actually see things very differently,” says Ms. Josephs, who is now the director of Applied Research and Innovation Services at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). She explains that in her many roles across industry she often went to polytechnic institutions for help with a variety of problems.
Ms. Josephs says industry leaders should be looking to Canada’s polytechnic schools – which are post-secondary institutions whose courses offer advanced technical knowledge and applied skills — to help them solve the largest problems faced by their organizations. Why? Because they have the expertise, innovation, and equipment to drive the economy into the future.
After more than 18 months in a global pandemic, industries have been even more focused on issues like food security, sustainability and clean energy, but these areas all present different problems for execution in their sectors.
Canada has a network of polytechnic institutions scattered across the country, with the technology and expertise capable of tackling the issues these global problems present.
At SAIT, research and innovation are driven by three areas and their intersection: energy; the environment; and the making of sustainable, resilient communities of the future.
“Polytechnics are problem solvers, and we need to get the word out there,” she says. “And we’re also a trusted unbiased partner to industry, to government and to First Nations.”
Polytechnics embrace their role as problem solvers and often have specific knowledge about issues affecting industry in a specific geographic location.
For instance, at Fanshawe College in London, Ont. – an area known for its food manufacturing capabilities – experts tackle issues ranging from shelf-life to edible cannabis.
“London’s primary employer is in the agri-food sector, particularly food processing companies,” explains Colin Yates, chair for the Centre of Research and Innovation at Fanshawe. “So, we’re trying to cater to that market and all of those companies and their needs so we can maintain a strong economy in the area and help it grow.”
Some of the issues are simple, explains Mr. Yates, and involve doing things like testing a product’s shelf-life before it comes to market or aiding with nutritional labelling.
Others are more complex like figuring out how to put a new ingredient in an existing product, introducing more natural preservatives or even cannabis. “We have a cannabis research license, so these are new products coming to market and our thing is to help those companies be able to safely put cannabinoids into food products. But all of this research and development comes down to driving economic development,” he says.
Saskatchewan is farm country, so it makes sense that crops like wheat, barley and canola and their future growth is a top priority for researchers in the area.
At Saskatchewan Polytechnic, experts are looking at how a remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) could be used to aid in canola growth and yield by examining crop residue and mapping out areas of parasite infestation.
The school currently has eight remote aircrafts, which are used across several departments including forestry, mining and agriculture.
According to Has Mailk, provost and vice-president, academic at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, the institution is even developing technology solutions to tackle problems of connectivity underground.
“Deep in mines, GPS tracking actually doesn’t work so it becomes very difficult to locate people and equipment,” Dr. Malik says. “So, we’re working with the International Minerals Innovation Institute … to look at this problem of using technology underground and how we can actually help the mining industry to enhance safety and efficiency.”
Cool tech and targeted solutions are the hallmarks of the polytechnic approach, but they are all used towards the end goal of economic growth, explains Ms. Josephs.
For her, more industry and government leaders need to look to these institutions for ways to bring their goods and services into the future. “The polytechnics in Canada are really the engines that are driving economic growth and creating jobs that will fuel the economy of tomorrow.”
From online and hybrid learning to microcredentials, polytechnic institutions believe that students have different learning needs and, just as importantly, industry has different areas that need more specially trained individuals.
In particular, microcredentials are courses that range from a couple of weeks to several months in length. They are narrowly focused, shorter courses designed to support and complement workers who want to gain knowledge in a specific area.
“These are very discrete, very employable skills that industry is asking for,” explains Mary Pierce, dean of the Faculty of Business, Information Technology and Part-time Studies at Fanshawe College, who emphasizes that these courses were not created in a vacuum.
“We devised these programs through working with our program advisory and industry panelists,” she says. “We told them what microcredentials were all about and then tried to develop them in the areas where our industry partners are saying, ‘this is what we need and this is where there is a gap,’ so we took all of that into consideration.”
Similarly, Saskatchewan Polytechnic has launched Surge micro-credentials, which focus on just-in-time learning that is aligned with business and industry needs. “Surge takes the micro component of the terminology to heart as a central differentiator of the delivery model,” said Dr. Malik. “Most of the Surge micro-credentials range between five and 15 hours in length, allowing for maximum flexibility and choice for learners, while delivering the skills and training that is in demand in the labour-market.”
SAIT launched a suite of micro-credentials this past summer, which are specialized in-demand courses focused on giving leaners a competency-based learning experience. Earning a SAIT micro-credential, referred to as SAITMicro, is a way for learners to demonstrate they have achieved, by way of a formal evaluation, the necessary skills and knowledge to meet industry standards. SAITMicro is a credible, secure, and shareable digital badge that links to metadata where employers can view the full details of where and how a credential was earned.