Jackie Pichette and Rosanna Tamburri — An agile system of lifelong learning is needed now more than ever

Measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 have left the economy reeling. Employment in Ontario fell by a record 403,000 jobs, or 5.3%, in March from February, according to Statistics Canada. The province’s unemployment rate rose to 7.6%, up from 5.5%, the largest monthly increase on record.*

No one could have predicted the severity of the COVID-19 fallout. And much uncertainty remains about what the economic recovery will look like once the virus is contained and restrictions are lifted — how many jobs will be permanently lost, which industries will bounce back unscathed and which will be forever altered.

As we have argued before, the labour market is unpredictable. And that’s not for a lack of data or research capacity; it’s because we can’t reliably forecast the factors that will affect human or corporate behaviour. While we can’t predict the specific changes coming down the pike, as a result of this pandemic or otherwise, we can anticipate and prepare for change in general. One way to do that is by building an agile system of lifelong learning.

The lifelong learning model prepares students, as Heather McGowan puts it, “to lose their jobs. Often.” Rather than acting as a linear pipeline to a specific job, a modern system of lifelong learning develops transferable skills early, in K-12 and postsecondary, and tops up that foundational schooling with job-specific skills via short, flexible programs throughout our adult working lives.

The Lifelong Learning Model

Source: Adapted from McGowan & Shipley (2017)

Ontario colleges and universities can play an important role in this process by teaching not only the knowledge and skills that workers require for specific careers, but also essential transferable skills, such as literacy, numeracy and critical thinking — skills that form the basis for effective lifelong learning.

When adult learners require retraining or upskilling, they should have access to flexible programs that recognize prior learning and experience, 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 and allows for learning progression. A recent US survey by the Strada Education Network found that 59% of those who intend to pursue additional education in the next six months said they would prefer non-degree programs including courses that focus on skills development, certificates and licences, and personal interest courses. Respondents were evenly split between those hoping to acquire more skills for their current career, skills for a new career and pursuing personal interests.

Competency-based education (CBE) programs are a promising model for retraining displaced workers, and are particularly well-suited to adults juggling multiple responsibilities. CBE programs are often offered online, tend to be asynchronous (meaning students can learn the same material at different times and locations) and are designed in consultation with employers to be industry aligned. They award credentials based on skill mastery rather than time spent in a classroom, allowing students with prior learning and experience to progress relatively quickly and cost-effectively.

Institutions with flexible learning options like CBE programs can help individuals who have lost their jobs to re-enter the workforce. Western Governors University and Arizona State University, two online CBE providers, have seen huge enrolment surges in recent years. When the pandemic struck, they were well-placed to continue offering online programs to all types of learners at all stages of their education and careers.

While CBE-style programs are in their infancy in Canada, there are signs of change as institutions across the country experiment with alternative credentials. The Ontario government, for example, is funding 14 pilot projects through eCampusOntario to assist colleges and universities and their industry partners to design microcertifications — short, focused credentials that verify mastery of in-demand skills and competencies. This is a welcome step.

Our publicly funded postsecondary institutions will undoubtedly be one of the first places Ontarians look to for their evolving education needs. Colleges and universities can help ease the impact of this unprecedented economic shock by developing an agile lifelong-learning system that features flexible educational and training programs. Many of our institutions, faced with an at least temporary decline in international students, are well-placed to provide the sort of flexible programs that adult learners need — to their own benefit as well. Institutions, governments and workers alike should seize the opportunity.

[*Editor’s note: Employment in Ontario fell by 689,200 jobs, or 9.6% in April from March. The province’s unemployment rate rose to 11.3%, up from 7.6%.]

Jackie Pichette is Director, Research, Policy and Partnerships and Rosanna Tamburri is Manager, Research Publications at HEQCO.

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