CIC - Winter 2018

Skills Upgrading Options for Adult Learners

Customized Learning Approaches are Meeting Student and Industry Needs


Colleges and institutes of technology across Canada are dedicated to meeting the needs of learners seeking a wide variety of skills. Whether they are looking for basic education and language programs, skills upgrading, academic credentials, prior learning assessment recognition, or exploring a second career, options are available to learners of all ages.

“Looking at the needs of adult learners, one size does not fit all,” says Patrick Devey, Dean of the Centre for Continuing and Online Learning at Algonquin College (with its main campus in Ottawa and additional locations in Perth and Pembroke, Ontario). “Each learner comes to Algonquin – or comes back, in many cases – with different goals in mind.”

Someone interested in pursuing an academic credential but who is missing a prerequisite to get into their desired program of study would be best aligned with pursuing academic upgrading (e.g., math, language, or computers). However, workers who has been in the same field for several years, but now finds themselves unemployed or underemployed, might consider retraining to enter a different profession. An additional scenario would involve someone working in their field of choice and wanting to augment their knowledge and skills to advance in their career as part of a professional development plan.

Colleges and institutes are recognizing that adults have different needs in different stages of their lives and careers. For example, Bow Valley College is providing Syrian refugees with English-language and construction skills. Capilano University has a program that focuses on critical reading, thinking, writing, and problem-solving skills for Indigenous students. And Canadore College has a pilot project designed to help individuals going back to school develop new skills to rejoin the workforce.

Adult learners need to be flexible, as do the methods of teaching. “Workers need to adapt to constant changes in the workplace, to compete in a knowledge-based economy,” Devey says. “Employees find themselves increasingly relying on just-in-time sources of content to placate the gap and [they are relying] less on formal training programs to complete certain tasks. It can be argued that YouTube has become the most popular source of educational content in the world.”

Canadian colleges and institutes are not the only learning institutions to realize the benefits of online learning. In fact, both Stanford University and Harvard University use the Massive Open Online Course platform to address the needs of learners. “Having e-learning validated from these prestigious institutions certainly puts a spotlight on the advantages of online learning,” says Devey. He adds that the needs of learners have evolved. “We develop schedules to personalize learning, look for modules that test out academic credentials, and ways to accelerate certain learning paths.” Devey’s additional advice for adult learners is decidedly old school: talk to an advisor. “Students don’t always know what they don’t know, and they may need training help, but not an entire program. There are many pathways to fill training gaps that adult learners may not be aware of.”

Industry partnerships are another important factor influencing the training that colleges and institutes are providing to adult learners. For example, Algonquin College recently signed an agreement with HealthCareCAN to provide health-science and health-related online professional development programs. As of September 2017, students enrolled in HealthCareCAN‘s Health Information Management and Food Service and Nutrition Management programs began working toward certificates of achievement that will be jointly conferred by Algonquin College and HealthCareCAN.

In Winnipeg, Red River College recently launched the Pathway Program to Construction Skills, partnering with the Manitoba government and the construction industry to provide essential language and construction skills to refugees. “The first program is complete and we placed all 21 students,” says Kerri Caldwell, Director of the Language Training Centre at Red River College (RRC). The College is now delivering its second Pathway Program to Construction Skills program, with 19 students enrolled. “We provide them with technical training in the construction field, like roofing, drywall, and painting skills. We’ve got employers on board through collaboration with the Winnipeg Construction Association and have worked with industry to develop the program and ensure we address labour market needs.”

From a general skills perspective, Caldwell adds that a trend she is noticing across all types of learning is that communications skills have become just as important as technical skills. “Being a nurse, doctor, or engineer…it’s important to have technical competencies, but if you cannot communicate effectively in the workplace, your career will be limited,” explains Caldwell. She adds that it’s essential for learning institutions to merge the technical with communications skills, to create innovative and flexible learners. Caldwell cites RRC’s Communication and Professional Practice for Medical Laboratory Technologists as an example of a program that integrates communications skills. “This program focuses on the language, culture and communication for Medical Laboratory Technologists that are necessary in the Canadian healthcare context,” says Caldwell. “Emphasis is on skill-building in speaking and listening.” Learners must be internationally-educated medical laboratory technologists (IEMLTs) and the communications skills are a new prerequisite for the application to the Manitoba IEMLT Bridging Program.

Another way that RRC is helping international students is through honing their language skills to help them enter the Canadian workforce. José Simões moved to Winnipeg from Brazil in August, 2015. After doing his research online, he learned that RRC had a program to help adult learners who needed to hone their English language skills in a business context. Like a lot of newcomers, he arrived in Canada with existing professional skills. In Brazil, he worked for seven years as a business account manager and investment analyst in the banking industry. “The learning process for me was like a ladder,” says Simões. “The Language Training Centre and my instructor Jules Mejia were essential to develop my English and then get my first job in Canada.” After improving his language skills, Simões earned a diploma in Business Administration, majoring in accounting. “Now, I am working on the documents to start work towards my CPA designation,” he adds.

Currently, Simões is working full time in the accounting industry for a large auto dealership.

But his college experience is never far from his mind. “I had the opportunity to learn with great instructors,” says Simões. He also appreciated the friendship and coaching he received from RRC’s employment services area, helping him develop interview skills. Like many adult students, Simões views himself as a lifelong learner. “We should never stop developing our skills. It doesn’t matter how old you are. To keep learning is mandatory to survive in a competitive market. My wife and I had a pretty good life in Brazil, a nice place and great jobs,” he adds. “However, we don’t regret, even for a second, the decision to move to Canada. We are really happy here.” This type of feedback is music to Caldwell’s ears, as her priority for the Language Training Centre is to create programs that make a difference in peoples’ lives. “Our students’ success means that we are meeting labour market needs and changing their lives, and the lives of their families,” says Caldwell. “It’s important to create programs that are accessible for as many people as possible.”

By Deborah Bowers