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Economic Stimulus – the Human Resources Priority

Posted in Discussion Papers, In the News

Rick Williams makes the economic case for PLAR in this unpublished article written for the Globe and Mail in January 2009.

With rapidly spreading plant closures, lay-offs and rising unemployment rates, there is one issue that may get overlooked as economists and politicians put together economic stimulus packages. Just a few months ago, before the global financial crisis had fully kicked in, business leaders and policy makers alike were preoccupied with the potentially devastating impacts of current demographic trends on Canada’s economic competitiveness. With a falling birth rate and the accelerating retirement of older skilled workers, employers in many sectors were deeply concerned about the need to expand the labour supply and to increase productivity through knowledge and skills upgrading.

Most informed observers would agree that labour and skills shortages, while off the radar right now, will re-emerge as serious constraints once a recovery is underway. In a recent article in the Globe’s Report On Business (“Spending Our Way to Recovery” 12/5/08), leading economists advised the federal government to spend more on (among other things) worker training and other programs to expand labour market participation by low skilled and underemployed populations.

Numerous research studies confirm that Canada lags behind competitor nations, including the U.S., in workplace training levels and in participation rates for lifelong learning and skills renewal.  These countries invest more public and private sector resources in education and training both for adults in the labour force and for those who are excluded by social and economic disadvantage.

While Canada has one of the most highly developed post-secondary education (PSE) systems in the world, its impacts on adults once they leave formal schooling are limited.  Half of all adult Canadians (25 years and over) do not participate in organized educational programs of any kind, and of those who do a relatively small percentage access services from PSE institutions (colleges and universities). Less than 10% of the 7 million Canadian adults with literacy skills below the levels demanded by a knowledge-driven economy currently participate in upgrading programs. Workplace training and formal and  “non-formal” PSE programs are accessed overwhelmingly by people with higher incomes and more advanced academic and professional qualifications to start with.

In short, there is an expanding disconnect between our PSE system and the demands of the labour market. For the last decade colleges and universities focused their resources heavily on young full-time students to accommodate the large “echo generation” cohort.  But now the demographic trend is shifting. The lower birth rate is already cutting into PSE enrollment levels while – just before the recession kicked in – employers were beginning to panic about skills shortages.  Our overall approach to education and training needs now to be substantially reoriented to serve different populations with different learning needs. This challenge should now be central to government efforts to build a comprehensive policy package to stimulate short-term economic recovery while laying the groundwork for longer-term renewal and restructuring.

The extensive research on why adults do not participate more actively in education and work related training identifies three critical factors: affordability, accessibility and psychosocial challenges. The first two are closely linked because the real costs of education and training for adults include having to leave jobs and families to access programs.

The psychosocial factor has to do with the personal barriers many adults face in finding the motivation and confidence to “go back to school”. These are most daunting for groups who have had the least success in their past schooling or who have been out of school for some time; e.g., older workers, high school drop-outs, persons with disabilities, workers displaced from low-skill occupations, and the working poor generally. The compelling reality is that in the current economic crisis even people with solid qualifications are facing personal upheaval and a need to make great transitions in where they live and work. They often face the same collapse of confidence, the same sense of powerlessness and fear of the future, as groups that have long felt vulnerable and excluded.

As the Globe & Mail’s economics advisors indicate, solutions are readily at hand. One of them, Dr. Elizabeth Beale (President of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council), presents this advice on training:

Enhance the investment in human capital by increasing funding for training under the EI program. Make changes to allow longer-term training (i.e., more than a year in length); fund part-time and on-the-job training; provide access for people who are underemployed; place a greater emphasis on prior-learning assessment and customized training for older workers.

Through its stimulus package the federal government should use the Employment Insurance system to expand education and training for low-skilled workers and marginalized populations and to provide paid educational leave for employed workers.  New tax incentives are needed to encourage employers, particularly in small businesses, to invest more in training their workers. On the accessibility side, PSE institutions should receive enhanced resources to re-gear their programs to accommodate non-traditional learners and to expand their capacities to offer distance education and to reach out more effectively to the community and the workplace. Expanded resources should also be directed towards industry sector councils, unions, non-governmental organizations and community-based agencies that are also significant facilitators and deliverers of adult education and employment-related training.

But these investments will not in themselves generate adequate returns if new ways are not found to overcome the psychosocial barriers that inhibit participation in education and training for so many adults. Elizabeth Beale identifies prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) as a means to help people who need to upgrade their skills to make transitions in the labour market. Over the past three decades PLAR has been developed and successfully applied in Canada across a broad range of transition circumstances and with a wide diversity of individuals and groups. The two basic objectives of PLAR programs are:

  • To bridge between the actual knowledge and skills of adults, much of it acquired through informal learning processes, and the requirements of formal educational and labour market systems and occupational and professional certification processes, and;
  • To build the confidence and motivation of adults as learners by identifying and valuing the significant learning they have typically accomplished outside of formal education and training settings.

PLAR services and programs share three common principles:

  • That adult learners should not have to learn over again what they already know and can do,
  • The actual knowledge and skills that adults possess matter more than where or how they learned them, and
  • In both labour market and educational settings, the knowledge and skills adults have acquired through life and work experience, as well as their formal education and training, should be appropriately evaluated and recognized.

The efficacy of PLAR has been proven in many localized institutional and community settings. The current economic crisis and the dislocation and adjustment requirements it has created have only heightened the need for PLAR services and programs. It is time now to develop a coherent policy and program approach as a central element of a comprehensive pan-Canadian human resources development strategy. At present Quebec and Manitoba have effective PLAR policies and programs in place. Alberta recently announced a “PLAR Action Plan” and a number of other provinces are moving in that direction. Internationally, many countries are way ahead of us in the field. The European Union is now setting out common principles and guidelines to make PLAR services available throughout 27 sovereign countries. Our jurisdictional challenges in Canada should not prevent us from following such a path.

The federal government’s economic stimulus package should encompass measures to rapidly expand adult education and workplace training in Canada. This is not a bricks and mortar issue. The physical infrastructure and capacities are largely in place, but we need to reorient and energize these systems to make them more affordable, more accessible and more welcoming for new populations of adult learners. More resources should go as well to alternative delivery systems in industry and the voluntary sector. The development of effective PLAR services and programs is integral to the achievement of all these objectives.

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About the author:

Dr Rick Williams, President of PRAXIS Research & Consulting Inc, a contributor to Achieving Our Potential: An Action Plan for Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) in Canada (2008) produced by the PLA Centre in Halifax for the Canadian Council on Learning, and available at www.placentre.ns.ca.