The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for skills development in Canada to help adult learners navigate the rapidly evolving world of work. Even before the pandemic, Canada’s skills development systems were failing to keep pace with changing labour market needs. Technological and demographic changes have increased the pressure on governments to offer more training and other support to workers — especially those with low skills — to prepare them for in-demand jobs, and to give employers access to the talent they require to thrive. These challenges call for governments to adopt more flexible, responsive and resilient workforce development approaches. How can that be achieved?
In this study, we draw on over 30 years of evidence from a range of countries to identify what approaches to skills development training are most effective and provide policy recommendations to lay the groundwork for replicating these models in Canada. We base our recommendations on evaluations of publicly funded training programs that focus specifically on outcomes for participants, such as getting a job and earning more.
The postpandemic economic recovery critically depends on whether the thousands of Canadians who have been laid off are able to regain employment. The 2021 federal budget announced additional funding for skills training and employment supports for those most affected by the economic shutdown. However, there is still a great deal of skepticism about the effectiveness of government-provided training for unemployed and underemployed workers.
In this study, Karen Myers, Simon Harding and Kelly Pasolli argue that doubts about the usefulness of spending public dollars on skills training are based on outdated perceptions stemming from past evaluations of large-scale training programs whose methodology is now being questioned. As part of their review of over 30 years worth of evidence from the United States and other countries, the authors identify the problems associated with these earlier evaluations and highlight the more nuanced conclusions of research led by practitioners in the past decade on what sort of training works, under what conditions and for whom. The key insight from this research is that government-sponsored skills training can be effective, and that it is most effective when it is aligned with employers’ needs and delivers the skills that are in demand in local labour markets.
While Canada is an OECD leader in K-12 and post-secondary education, some experts argue that it has underperformed for adult learners. On average, working Canadians receive only 49 hours of informal, job-related training per year, 9 hours fewer than the OECD average. Canada spends only 0.07 percent of its GDP on training, compared with the OECD average of 0.13 percent. And the workers who are most likely to need more training — those in rural and remote locations, those without post-secondary qualifications, and those with lower literacy — are also less likely to participate in training opportunities. To better meet adult learners’ needs, Canada’s labour market and skills programs need to be systematized and better coordinated.
An important shortcoming of Canada’s skills training systems is a lack of support for adults who wish to continue to improve their labour market prospects throughout their working lives. Currently, the programs focus primarily on assisting unemployed workers to obtain employment quickly, rather than enabling them to build the skills necessary to connect them to sustainable career paths and to navigate job and career transitions as labour markets evolve. University programs are also misaligned with adult learners’ needs, failing to equip them with the skills required to be employed in growth sectors.
The lack of evidence on the effectiveness of skills training, coupled with low participation levels and a complex funding environment, contributes to the perception that skills training offers little to workers. Working Canadians need more agile, responsive skills development solutions.
Especially promising are two demand-informed training models that have been adopted widely in the US: sector-based training and Career Pathways. Looking at the effects of these approaches to training on participants’ employment prospects and earnings, Myers and her colleagues point to key factors that help explain their success, notably establishing close collaboration with employers to identify in-demand skills, carefully selecting training candidates interested in entering specific sectors, ensuring flexibility in training program delivery, and providing wraparound supports such as child care and career advice to mitigate the barriers to training faced by working-age adults.
STEPS TO DEVELOP DEMAND-DRIVEN SKILLS TRAINING IN CANADA
The need for timely and responsive skills development options has been thrust front and centre by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created widespread economic disruption. Canada needs training that equips job seekers and workers with skills that are better aligned with labour market demand.
The evidence base for publicly funded skills training provides important lessons for policy-makers looking to respond to the economic impacts of COVID-19. Models such as sector-based training and Career Pathways hold promise for adapting our skills development systems to meet employers’ needs. The evidence also highlights the complexity involved in designing and delivering effective training programs, pointing to the need for investments in system infrastructure, and experimentation and evaluation to ensure that the programs are flexible, responsive and resilient. Such investments would help strengthen our skills development systems and produce better outcomes for individuals, communities and employers across Canada.
We offer four recommendations to support this transformation:
- Test, replicate and scale sector-based training models — Sector-based training develops skills that are tied to a specific industry sector, and multiple, rigorous US evaluations have demonstrated that it helps workers find and keep jobs. Implementing sector-based models at scale could help more workers succeed in the labour market.
- Build the training infrastructure that is needed to deploy demand-informed training models
- Ensuring that sector-based models are sustainable and responsive to labour market needs at scale requires the right infrastructure, including strong networks that connect and align the efforts of employers and training providers, as well as timely information about labour market trends and skills demand.
- Explore the feasibility of applying the US Career Pathways approach — This training model, widely implemented in the US, offers flexible, demand informed post-secondary training options organized into a series of modular steps. It offers a promising framework for bringing an employer-focused lens to post-secondary education programming and supporting career advancement for adults who are already in the labour market.
- Commit to learning what works — Our review highlights the complexity of designing and implementing training programs that are effective in different contexts. It is critical that policy-makers invest in generating evidence on an ongoing basis about what works, for whom and under what conditions.
We hope that these broad recommendations can be starting points for substantive discussions among key stakeholders on how to transform Canada’s skills development systems to make them more flexible and responsive to evolving labour market needs.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story @ Skills Training That Works: Lessons from Demand-Driven Approaches