Workforce transformation: How polytechnics are positioning Canada for an uncertain future

This is an excerpt from Polytechnic Education: A Vision for Ontario.


Canada is undergoing a period of momentous transformation. Technological progress is rapid and unrelenting, altering the structure of the labour market and the skills necessary to succeed in it; our population skews ever older, reducing labour force participation in key sectors and increasing demand in the caring economy; and the signals employers have traditionally used to match people to their vacant positions are changing, requiring educators to rethink the ways credentials are issued, validated, and recognized (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2017b).

Beyond these transformative factors, globally we are experiencing a period of slowing economic growth (International Monetary Fund, 2019). Coupled with technological displacement and an aging population, slow growth presents a real risk to Canada’s ability to thrive in a disruptive future. The solutions, however, are within our grasp. Smart education, workforce development, and innovation policies can fuel productivity and competitiveness. Building a future that secures economic prosperity will require a whole-of-society approach—one that includes employers, government, and educators. Without doubt, Canada’s polytechnics sit at the centre of efforts to shape that future.

Polytechnics are uniquely positioned to respond to the challenges of the 21st century and to lead in the delivery of future-focused solutions because they occupy critically important space at the intersection of education, workforce development, and innovation. Polytechnics deliver hands-on, technical, and career-focused education across a breadth of credentials and to the full spectrum of learners. Their robust industry partnerships ensure learners are equipped with future-proof and employer-relevant skills. They possess significant applied research capacity, giving Canada’s innovators the tools needed to operate at the forefront of the technology frontier, commercializing products and turning ideas into action.

Situated in key economic regions across the country, Canada’s polytechnics are at the epicentre of the nation’s economic activity. These cities are host to national and global headquarters, high-growth made-in-Canada firms, social innovators, governments, and diverse talent. At the same time, polytechnics support Canada’s critical economic engines in rural and remote regions, developing talent for our resource economy and helping industries—including forestry, mining, agriculture, and oil and gas—to modernize, innovate, and thrive in a digital age.

In this chapter, we highlight the significant and pressing challenges that Canada faces in the 21st century and how polytechnics—both as institutions of learning and partners of industry—will be central to the country’s progress. Of course, Canada’s success cannot be disentangled from the success of Ontario.  As the country’s most populous province and largest economy, Ontario is a critical contributor and, as home to seven polytechnic institutions, Ontario will be a central actor in Canada’s economic transformation.

Transformation and how polytechnics are leading the way

Technological Transformation

Of the many significant global transformations underway, the labour market is perhaps most anxious about emerging technology and the ways it will reshape jobs, alter the skills needed to perform them, and shift how and where work is organized. For example, artificial intelligence is materializing in both the knowledge economy and the know-how economy; intelligent automation and additive manufacturing are revolutionizing supply chains; industrial robots are changing the way we build, assemble, and manufacture; and the Internet of Things (IoT) is driving workplace efficiency by creating new possibilities in transportation, logistics, and what it means to be physically present (International Federation of Robotics, 2018).

We are also experiencing a deliberate and seismic shift to the digital world. Fields we used to think of as exclusively physical, like agriculture, forestry, and mining, are quickly adopting digital technologies. In Saskatchewan, autonomous seeders use cloud-based data to make farming more efficient and more profitable (Royal Bank of Canada, 2019). In Alberta and BC, lost cattle are tracked with RFID chips and drones, helping to reduce costs to farmers (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, 2015). In Ontario, the next generation of automated mining equipment is being designed and tested, improving both safety and efficiency (Sheridan, 2015). These examples illustrate a world going digital, but also how polytechnics are helping industry partners capitalize on digital transition. All make Canada competitive on the global stage.

As new technology transforms occupations, Canada’s educational institutions must prepare young learners for these new realities. The industry-aligned curricula at Canada’s polytechnics set the benchmark exceptionally high. Employers are informing the learning at every stage, with industry experts in the classroom as instructors and mentors, and on program advisory committees, informing updates to curricula. Learners are training on cutting-edge technology and equipment. Students across programs are benefitting from experiential education and getting exposure to real-world challenges via work-integrated learning. Polytechnic education delivers individuals equipped with up-to-date and in-demand skills, who are ready to hit the ground running.

An even more daunting and difficult challenge is ensuring that today’s mid-career workers can adapt to new technology-driven realities. When technology impacts jobs and industries, individuals in the workforce may require upskilling to maintain their relevance or retraining in the face of displacement. Ensuring effective mechanisms for upskilling and retraining is essential to national productivity and global competitiveness. Given that the impact of automation varies greatly across regions and levels of education, mid-career access to training also supports an inclusive society (Lamb & Lo, 2017; Autor et al., 2006).

In the United States, economist David Autor (2019) has observed that the labour market is polarizing in terms of both skills and wages. Employment growth is largely seen in jobs that are either high-skill and high-wage, or low-skill and low-wage. In comparison, employment in middle-skill, middle-wage jobs are in decline. Those displaced face a stark choice: upgrade skills to compete for higher-skill jobs or accept a cut to earnings in lower-skill roles. This reality makes the creation of an effective upskilling and retraining ecosystem imperative. The challenge is to build and deliver programs flexible enough for those at mid-career and aligned to labour market demand, so that retraining provides a direct pathway back into industry. This is a challenge and opportunity for Canada’s polytechnics, the country’s premier providers of both upskilling and retraining.

The polytechnic model is well-placed to address this challenge because of its close partnership with industry and a well-developed understanding of demand. The ability of polytechnics to deliver training over short periods is particularly efficient in the mid-career market. Together, polytechnics offer nearly 17,000 short courses with an average duration of 37 hours and at a cost of less than $500 per course (Polytechnics Canada, 2020). This robust program offering, along with unique sector partnerships, is ideally positioned to give individuals the skills they need, validated by employers and as quickly as possible, to respond to transition brought on either by choice or circumstance.

Excellent examples abound. Home of Next Generation Manufacturing Canada, the advanced manufacturing Supercluster, the Greater Toronto Area has become a hub for upskilling mid-career workers in advanced manufacturing. Humber College, known for its strength in mechatronics, robotics, and automation programming, is able to leverage faculty expertise and advanced research and training facilities like the Barrett Centre for Technology Innovation, to help the current workforce update and modernize their skill sets. Over the summer of 2017, Magna, a leading Canadian auto parts manufacturer, had employee engineers and technicians from Mexico come to Humber to upgrade their skills. Working with faculty and students in the electromechanical engineering program, the group completed programming related to automation and robotics, training on leading-edge equipment not yet adopted by Magna (Humber College, 2017).

For Manitoba’s flourishing aerospace sector, Red River College (RRC) offers upskilling to Boeing Canada at its Technology Access Centre for Aerospace and Manufacturing (TACAM), providing training in composite fabrication, repair, tooling, and assembly, as well as Computer Numerical Control operation. These training programs rely on state-of-the-art equipment and facilities at RRC’s aviation and aerospace campus, as well as the technical expertise of TACAM staff and RRC instructors (Polytechnics Canada, 2018). As industry techniques and technologies evolve, polytechnics fill a critical gap by providing access to specialized equipment and facilities, where employers can upskill and train their existing workforce to ensure they maintain their place at the leading edge of the technology frontier.

In retraining those displaced or transitioning between sectors, polytechnics again excel. The ability to identify work-related skills and map them against requirements, then find the shortest possible path to fill the gaps, is a case in point. Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) is widely used at Canada’s polytechnics to measure an individual’s existing stock of skills, knowledge, and abilities acquired through previous experience, employment, and education. The assessment can be used to curate training to someone’s unique needs.

One of the nation’s leading examples of PLAR in action can be found at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), which hosts the National Advanced Placement and Prior Learning Program. N-APPL maps competencies developed in previous employment against academic programs, allowing veterans of the Canadian Forces, newcomers, tradespeople, first responders, and others at mid-career to obtain advanced standing in their programs and shorten their time in training (British Columbia Institute of Technology, n.d.). And, while BCIT is host to the N-APPL program, it has partners across the country. In Ontario, Fanshawe College—whose president, Peter Devlin, is a former lieutenant general in the Canadian Armed Forces—is a leader in deploying the N-APPL toolkit, ensuring veterans, newcomers, and former first responders are given academic credit for their previous employment.

Despite the current cadre of upskilling and retraining options, there is room to build out scale to make lifelong learning in Canada more accessible and widespread. To achieve this, governments should consider ways to further encourage education–private sector partnerships following the polytechnic example. Sectoral consortia designed to develop labour market intelligence, share expertise, and identify shared resources could stimulate collective action and benefit from economies of scale.

Stronger incentives for individuals to save for training expenses are also needed. While a Canada Training Credit was introduced in 2019 to enable Canadians aged 25 to 64 to accrue $250 per year for training to a lifetime maximum of $5,000, learners must pay for training upfront and claim the credit on their annual tax return (Government of Canada, 2019). Virtually invisible as a refundable tax credit, it does little to encourage Canadians to seek retraining.

While provincial governments across the country are increasingly looking to support the development and offer of micro-credentials in the aftermath of widespread career disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there remain gaps. There is not yet a common understanding of the value proposition of micro-credentials among individuals or employers. To encourage take-up, more needs to be done to draw clear lines between skills in high demand and programs that develop them. To encourage scale, new models might be considered to put public dollars in the hands of polytechnics to administer retraining programs and the career guidance that should accompany them.

Given the unstoppable trend of technological transformation, new approaches to education and training are critical. Canada’s polytechnics are leading the way with innovative solutions that ensure our talent pipeline is future-proof and equipped with the skills required in today’s labour market. At the same time, efforts to make Canada’s mid-career workforce resilient are afoot.

Working with industry and employers to create retraining and upskilling programs will ensure all Canadians have access to the skills they need to flourish in a changing economy.

Demographic Transformation

The implications of technological transformation cannot be considered in isolation. Canada’s population is experiencing a different but equally significant transformation—it’s going grey. The year 2017 was the first in which there were more seniors than children in Canada. By 2035, Canada’s senior population is projected to be over 10 million strong (Statistics Canada, 2016a, 2016b). The challenges of an aging population are numerous and complex, from increased pressure on public finances to changing social and family dynamics. Where Canada’s education, workforce development, and innovation needs intersect, two ramifications stand out in particular (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Population projections for seniors and children

NOTE. Data from Statistics Canada (2016).

The first significant implication of demographic transformation is that we stand to lose significant portions of our workforce to retirement. From 2017 to 2026, nearly 4 million Canadians will retire (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2017a). This will result in labour gaps, with more significant impacts in some sectors than others. The second critical implication is that, as Canada’s population ages, the need for workers in health, personal care, and social assistance will grow, as will demand for innovation in health and seniors’ care (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2017b). These dual challenges necessitate strategies for both workforce development and innovation to account for new realities.

Generation Next: Skilled Trades and Infrastructure

When considering the implications of a retiring workforce, the skilled trades offer a case in point. The federal government has made updating Canada’s infrastructure a pillar of its current mandate. Nearly $190 billion has been committed between 2016 and 2028 on infrastructure priorities through the New Infrastructure Plan (Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, 2017). Yet, the infrastructure of tomorrow is unlike that of past generations, requiring new skills and talent to build it. Smart, sensor-rich, and IoT-enabled, infrastructure will increasingly demand a know-how workforce with strong technology skills and the ability to support emerging social and environmental goals.

For example, tomorrow’s infrastructure builds will inevitably need to support the widespread adoption of electric vehicles, use renewables to power rural and remote communities, and adopt new techniques and materials for more energy-efficient homes and offices. In Vancouver, regulations already stipulate that all new buildings must be carbon-neutral by 2030. Both BCIT and Kwantlen Polytechnic University will be central to producing the talent and technology to make these infrastructure goals a reality (City of Vancouver, 2016).

In Toronto, George Brown College is leading the way in sustainable building. The school is currently developing the Arbour, a 10-storey building that will be Ontario’s first low-carbon, mass-timber institutional building. The Arbour will use innovative mass-timber products like glued-laminated lumber and cross-laminated lumber, reducing the carbon output when compared to products like cement. Meanwhile, carbon captured by trees remains sequestered (George Brown College, 2019; Oliver et al., 2014). The Arbour will also host the Mass Timber Research Hub, which will help stimulate further innovation in sustainable construction.

Yet, as Canada’s and Ontario’s infrastructure demands grow and evolve, much of the talent we need to meet these demands is nearing retirement age. The skilled trades comprise more than 20 per cent of the Canadian workforce. In 2016, more than a quarter of those holding a Certificate of Apprenticeship or Certificate of Qualification were over the age of 55 (Statistics Canada, 2015, 2018). Over the next decade, in the construction trades alone, an estimated 259,100 individuals will retire (BuildForce, 2021). Remedying this demographic-driven workforce challenge means committing to training the next generation of skilled tradespeople.

Polytechnics are the largest providers of apprenticeship training in Canada. The 13 members of Polytechnics Canada currently train more than 31,000 apprentices in 270 programs across the country—Ontario’s polytechnics are home to nearly 10,000 apprentices. Polytechnics also offer more than 110 pre-apprenticeship programs, allowing learners to start building the skills for a career in the trades even before they register as an apprentice (Polytechnics Canada, 2020).

Canada’s polytechnics understand the importance of leveraging the diversity of talent across the country and have made inclusivity central to their apprenticeship programs, recruiting and supporting women and Indigenous peoples. For example, at Conestoga College, the Women in Skilled Trades General Carpenter Pre-Apprenticeship is targeted at low-income and unemployed or underemployed women. Spanning 26 weeks of practical theory and hands-on experience, followed by an eight-week paid placement (Skills Ontario, 2017), the program includes communication and computer literacy training, recognizing that both are essential to success in skilled trades workplaces (Conestoga College, n.d.).

In 2016, Ottawa’s Algonquin College launched an Indigenous-centric cook pre-apprenticeship program that “teaches students traditional Indigenous food preparation, nutrition theory, knife skills, and business management, while integrating Indigenous stories, spirituality, and culture.” Learners are provided with 15 weeks of skills upgrading, 13 weeks of first-level apprenticeship training, and an eight-week-long experiential learning placement (Algonquin College, n.d.). The program was planned in partnership with the Algonquins of Ottawa and Kitigan Zibi and the Mohawks of Akwasasne. Currently, courses are taught by First Nations instructors from Cree, Algonquin, and Blackfoot backgrounds (Coxon, 2018).

Canada’s polytechnics also recognize that skilled tradespeople are positioned to be the next generation of business owners. Programs like the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Trades to Degrees program, which gives tradespeople advanced standing in its Bachelor of Business degree, help individuals build entrepreneurship, leadership, and management skills (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, n.d.). Upskilling our skilled trades workforce ensures that, as the current workforce retires out, the next generation is prepared to start, own, and grow their businesses, innovate and be entrepreneurial.

Across the country, polytechnics are also innovating in the way they deliver credentials to account for evolving industry needs, with particular emphasis on the growing demand for what Jerry Useem (2019) calls “problem-solving generalists”—employees with broad, cross-disciplinary knowledge (para. 6). To fill this demand in carpentry and construction, Humber College offers a suite of stackable credentials within the Carpentry-Construction group. Learners are able to move through a range of certificate and diploma programs, like the Carpentry and Renovation Techniques diploma and the Industrial Woodworking Technician program, to gain initial knowledge and practical experience. Students can then ladder into an advanced diploma in Construction Engineering Technology, where there’s an emphasis on data analysis, surveying, quality control, and project management. Learners who complete this suite of stackable credentials come to the job market prepared for a variety of roles in the construction sector (Humber College, 2019).

To further ensure the necessary talent is coming up the skilled trades pipeline, it’s imperative that Canadians remedy a perception challenge. Parents and guidance counsellors are often quick to dismiss these careers for academically strong students. The truth is, as the skilled trades become ever more technology- and STEM-intensive, they will demand our highest-performing young learners.

Take welding, for example. In the aerospace sector, welders work alongside advanced robots, use leading-edge equipment, and put emerging techniques into practice. This is not a career for the academically challenged: physics, metallurgy, and chemistry are essential to success. Canada’s emerging procurement priorities—including the commitment to build 18 new Coast Guard ships—offer unique opportunities for highly skilled welders (Zimonij & Davidson, 2019). Seneca’s Underwater Skills program, and others like it, will be central to ensuring Canada has the talent to build and maintain the new fleet.

As demographic transformations place pressure on particular segments of the labour market, Canada’s polytechnics stand ready to respond.

New Growth, Old Canada

If Canada is prepared, demographic transformation can also create tremendous opportunity. An aging population will give rise to new jobs in health care, social assistance, and personal care. In fact, the Canadian Occupational Projection System estimates that, by 2026, as shown in Figure 2, there will be nearly 200,000 job openings in the caring economy (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2017b). How does Canada develop a workforce that can care for 10 million seniors by 2035 (Statistics Canada, 2016)? Of central importance will be leveraging polytechnics (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Industries Projected to Have the Strongest Employment Growth, 2017-2026 (average annual growth, in percentage)

NOTE: Average annual growth, in percentage. Data from Employment and Social Development Canada (2017c).

Given that the caring economy requires applied, hands-on skills, polytechnics are well-positioned on the front line. Caring for the aging population requires deep technical knowledge, particularly in nursing occupations, but also wide-ranging human skills, like empathy, compassion, and socio-emotional intelligence. At Canada’s polytechnics, human skills are honed and developed through work-integrated learning experiences like field placements and practicums, where learners have the opportunity to work with patients in real-world environments. For example, Fanshawe College’s Community Pharmacy Assistant program requires learners to complete a field placement in a community pharmacy (Fanshawe College, n.d.), honing critical experience in patient engagement.

Polytechnics are also home to facilities that replicate real-world environments through simulation. In 2018, a collaborative initiative between George Brown College, its industry partner Baycrest Health, and Microsoft was formed to design simulated field placement experiences in long-term care facilities. Students studying in George Brown College’s Centre for Community Services and Health Sciences programs are now able to experience firsthand what it’s like to interact with patients in a long-term care facility before ever stepping foot in one (George Brown College, 2019).

With a focus on the human elements of care, these occupations are largely resistant to the labour-displacing effects of technology, making them, to borrow a term from Northeastern University president Dr. Joseph Aoun (2017), “robot proof”—at least for now (p. xxvi). In the Brookfield Institute’s Talented Mr. Robot report estimating automation by occupation, registered nurses are predicted to be one of the lowest-risk occupations in Canada (Lamb, 2016). So, while it may be true that IBM’s super-computer Watson is revolutionizing oncology, the human face of health care isn’t likely to disappear any time soon (Hamilton et al., 2019). Based on projected demand, health fields are some of the largest and fastest growing at Canada’s polytechnics. In fact, within the membership of Polytechnics Canada, the highest-enrolled degree, diploma, and certificate programs all fall within the caring economy (Polytechnics Canada, 2018).

In addition to the talent pipeline, Canada’s polytechnics are developing and commercializing innovations to ease the societal burden of an aging population. As a greater proportion of the population reaches the stage of life where they require care, new equipment, tools, and techniques to make elder care more cost effective will be critical to productivity.

For example, Algonquin College’s Garbarino Girard Centre for Innovation in Seniors Care in Ottawa is a living lab and applied research facility dedicated to devising solutions to some of eldercare’s most pressing challenges, including dementia. The facility houses a “smart apartment” where the health care workforce of the future can beta-test digital health innovations in a sensor-rich environment modelled after a senior’s home (Algonquin College, 2016).

In Toronto, at Sheridan College’s Centre for Elder Research, a project to study emerging technologies like virtual reality has been launched. The project is looking at the use of “virtual humans” to deliver instructional physiotherapy sessions in long-term care facilities (Sheridan College, 2018).

In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s Centre for Health Research, Improvement and Scholarship is undertaking research on community-based approaches for end-of-life care for patients with dementia. The goal is high-quality, compassionate care for all (Saskatchewan Polytechnic, n.d.).

This kind of research and innovation will keep Canada ahead of the curve and mitigate the pressures of an aging population. Now is the time for federal research and development funders to consider how best to scale up investments in applied research focused on senior care, particularly given the role this research will play as Canada navigates demographic headwinds.

Demographic realities also mean that immigration will be critical to remedy our workforce challenges. The way to both fill workforce gaps and ensure Canadian firms can boost productivity is to bring leading talent to Canada from around the globe. Canada’s polytechnics are magnets for the world’s best and brightest, both students and faculty. At present, the members of Polytechnics Canada host more than 98,000 international students a year—over 75,000 in Ontario—helping to prepare the next generation of new Canadians for our labour market, economy, and society (Polytechnics Canada, 2020).

Demographic and workforce development challenges are converging, putting Canada in a uniquely challenging position. Infrastructure needs are on the rise while the skilled trades workforce sits on the edge of retirement. An aging population relies on a volume of health care workers yet to be trained. Innovations in elder care must be both cost-effective and human-focused. While these are just two sectors of many, they offer tangible examples of how Canada’s polytechnics are rising to the occasion.

Changing Employer Preferences and the Need to Innovate in Credential Delivery

There is a third transformation underway, influencing the marketplace for credentials. While credentials have long been a proxy for skills among hiring managers, employer confidence in them is degrading as they question the ability to predict job performance on the basis of post-secondary accomplishment. This has significant implications for institutions, many of which measure success based on graduate employment outcomes.

A number of multinational companies have removed credential specifications from their hiring requirements—employers like Ernst & Young, IBM, Google, and Apple have dropped or altered long-held educational conditions of employment (Ernst & Young, 2015; Connley, 2018). Instead, hiring managers are placing greater importance on skills and competencies, believing them to be better predictors of future success in the workplace. When hiring software developers, Google might put extra weight behind a prospective employee’s online portfolio of code on GitHub; when hiring accountants, Ernst & Young might put more value on numerical tests devised by their human resources teams.

There are benefits to this shift away from credentials as hiring signals, in particular when thinking about inclusivity. For example, in the American context, students from “elite” schools—who are more likely to come from wealthier families—may no longer have the leg up they once did, making the job market more equitable. When the name of your school is no longer sufficient as a labour market signal, the ability to demonstrate skills becomes of far greater importance (Lam, 2015).

This approach poses challenges for post-secondary institutions, where credentials have long been their primary value proposition for students and employers. Post-secondary institutions either need to consider how to better align the credentials they deliver with the competencies in demand or ensure the skills that sit behind credentials are more evident and accessible by building in a new level of transparency. Making credentials more transparent helps job seekers too, ensuring individuals can better articulate their skills to prospective employers. In the case of human skills, which many have difficulty articulating now, this is particularly relevant. Ultimately, enhanced credential transparency could serve to reduce labour market friction by better informing both employers and job seekers.

Responding to emerging employer preference requires consideration about how credentials themselves can be transformed. Canada’s polytechnics have always been leaders in the delivery of industry-aligned and employer-relevant credentials, from applied four-year bachelor degrees to short-term certificates. Employers inform curriculum development through Program Advisory Committees, ensuring learners are building the skills in demand today. They donate equipment for training, giving students experience with current technologies. They are in the classroom as instructors and they bring learners into their workplaces for work-integrated learning experiences.

While many employers would agree that the credentials on offer at polytechnics are producing work-ready graduates, there remain efforts to innovate and experiment with design and delivery. For example, the emergence of micro-credentials includes a shift to recognizing competency ahead of participation, mastery rather than course hours (State University of New York, 2019).

Micro-credentials can be embedded in the curriculum of any course or program but can also be delivered as stand-alone credentials to mid-career workers. This has the potential to give those currently in the workforce verifiable and portable recognition of skills. Digital badges enable portability by adding a digital representation of the micro-credential displayed in online portfolios, resumés, and other profiles. Digital badges often contain metadata detailing how the micro-credential was earned, how the skill or competency was assessed, who validated the learning, and any third-party endorsements, giving employers a seat at the table when it comes to skill recognition (Mozilla Wiki, 2014). Making a micro-credential’s metadata publicly available is key to its value as it makes the credential entirely transparent.

Today, Humber offers suites of stackable micro-credentials, represented by digital badges, in the building information modelling software REVIT and in social media strategy. Learners in the field of architectural technology can earn a number of stand-alone micro-credentials, as well as a suite of stackable digital badges in fundamental, intermediate, and advanced REVIT skills. Once all three digital badges have been earned, they can be stacked into a larger digital credential, the REVIT Architecture Professional Certificate of Completion (Humber College, n.d.). Similarly, learners in the social media field can obtain digital badges in Social Media Monitoring and Measuring, Social Media Advertising, and Social Media Content Strategy, again stackable into a larger credential, the Certificate of Participation in Social Media (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Humber launched digital badges in Fall 2018

NOTE. From Humber College (n.d.-c; n.d.-d).

With funding from the Future Skills Centre, Humber is also developing a micro-credential series on digital fluency (Humber, 2020), skills that are becoming increasingly critical to employers. Digital fluency skills enable individuals to use and adapt to digital tools, manage information, conduct research, and create and communicate effectively and ethically in digital spaces. The project is comprised of three stackable micro-credentials designed to help learners upgrade their skills or relearn them in a flexible format.

With micro-credentials and digital badges just beginning to see widespread use, a host of different players—both credible and not—are delivering them. Post-secondary institutions have an opportunity to claim the high-quality end of this spectrum because of their long-standing commitment to academic rigour and quality assurance. Polytechnics in particular can leverage their close employer relationships to design micro-credentials directly in line with workforce needs, ensuring continued relevance and currency in the labour market.

Credential innovation is also apparent elsewhere. To enhance credential portability, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) partnered with the Swiss-based On-Demand Education Marketplace to grant its 2019 graduating class blockchain-based diplomas in addition to their paper-based parchments (Tech Dogs, 2019). Making credentials available on the blockchain has benefits for both graduates and employers. Graduates will have access to and the ability to share their academic records anywhere in the world without having to request them from SAIT. For employers, the validity of credentials from SAIT graduates can be instantly verified on the blockchain network, adding a dimension of trust.

As both the skills required to succeed in the workforce and the way employers seek out those skills change, post-secondary institutions must find ways to make credentials more transparent and portable, better defining the specific skills and competencies that sit behind them. Rather than abandoning a long-held tradition of credential award, post-secondary institutions should be focused on how they can innovate in their delivery and ensure their transparency. The leadership of Canada’s polytechnics in the credential innovation space serves to make labour markets more efficient by making talent easier to find and ensuring a good match between supply and demand.


Two decades into the 21st century, we’re witnessing significant transformation. In Ontario and in the rest of Canada, these transformations mean that the skills needed within the labour market are changing, demanding new systems to ensure the whole of our talent pipeline—from young learners to mid-career—have future-proof skill sets. Transformation means key sectors of our economy will come under pressure as the aging workforces retires out, demanding that we prioritize occupations where critical workforce gaps exist. Changing societal perceptions of “good” careers is necessary. Transformation also means that, as our population ages, we need a workforce capable of caring for the elderly. Lastly, 21st-century transformations mean that employers are using new tools and new signals to find the talent they require, demanding that the major suppliers of talent—Canada’s post-secondary institutions—find new ways to send those signals in their graduates.

Canada’s polytechnics are already moving to mitigate the impact of these transformations, leveraging their unique space at the centre of education, workforce development, and innovation. Though transformations require collective action, it is clear that Canada’s polytechnics will be central players. They are delivering up-to-date skills to young learners and helping mid-career workers face change. Polytechnics are training the future skilled trades workforce and developing those who will care for our aging population. Canada’s polytechnics are building on a known strength—aligning education and employment needs—while remaining flexible and agile when it comes to issuing credentials in a way that is responsive to employer demand.

Maintaining a competitive global economy and building a healthy, equitable, innovative society hinges on our ability to respond to the forces that are transforming work. Canada’s polytechnics are today, and will be tomorrow, central to achieving economic and social success in the 21st century and beyond.

About the Authors

Sarah Watts-Rynard, Chief Executive Officer, Polytechnics Canada

Sarah Watts-Rynard joined Polytechnics Canada as Chief Executive Officer in July 2018. Her background is in marketing communications, advocacy and non-profit management, including eight years focused on the important role tradespeople play in the Canadian economy. Sarah is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades and Technology (WinSETT Centre) and sits on the Boards of the CWB Welding Foundation and the Canadian Club of Ottawa.

Daniel Komesch, Account Director, Hill+Knowlton Strategies

At the time of writing, Daniel was the Director of Policy at Polytechnics Canada.