Getting credit for lifelong learning

Canadians find scant encouragement for, or recognition of, acquiring new skills and knowledge
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/02/2003


f asked to name the last time they were granted recognition for having learned something, most Canadian adults would have to reach back over many years, to the moment they wrote that last final in high school, college or university.

Although they’re constantly acquiring new skills and knowledge, many Canadians still find scant encouragement for, or recognition of, it once they’ve put behind them the halcyon days of schooling.

That’s what advocators of prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) are out to change. If lifelong learning is to be anything more than a mere mantra, then this informal learning has to be recognized — and academic credits given if warranted, advocates say.

“We as an economy are losing billions of dollars because we’re not able to capitalize on the skills and knowledge that we already have in the workforce,” said Sandra Aarts, an adult educator and researcher on prior learning assessment. She cited a Conference Board of Canada study that puts the value of “the learning recognition gap” between $4.1 billion and $5.9 billion in lost income.

“Employers don’t have an appreciation for the knowledge and skills that their workers bring. They either don’t need to know or they don’t have the mechanisms to find out,” said Aarts, who recently collaborated on a cross-Canada survey of PLAR learners.

Prior learning assessment and recognition, in short, is a system of granting an academic credit to people who can show that, without having gone to school, they have learned the equivalent of what a classroom student would learn in taking a course. Until recently, it’s been a process involving only the individual learner and academic institution that grants the credit. In most cases, the academic institution granting prior learning credits is a community college, as the universities that have embraced the concept are still few.

Lately, however, some employers are warming up to the concept. Some are trying to assess not only individual employees but entire training programs, so that people who go through the in-house training can come out of it with an academic diploma in hand.

Others may stop short of delivering the piece of paper at the end of the training, but they still go through the onerous assessment process because they like the systematic rigour of having to identify the learning expected.

Typically, an individual who wants to translate her learning into academic credits has to provide evidence of her knowledge. She presents this evidence to an assessor at a college, who then reviews the submission and compares it with an academic course, looking for equivalent “learning outcomes” (the knowledge a student enrolled in the academic course would be expected to have upon completion of the course).

In the belief that individuals can learn in any situation, prior learning assessors may accept a variety of ways to demonstrate this knowledge.

Demonstration exams, referral letters or portfolios of accomplishments are some of the more common ways learners provide proof of their learning.

In instances involving a wholesale assessment of an employer’s training program, the assessor starts out with a detailed inventory of the learning outcomes for the institution’s diploma program, for example. He then compares it with the list of learning outcomes expected of the corporate training program. If equivalent, workers who complete the corporate training would qualify for a diploma from the institution.

At SaskWater, the crown corporation managing water distribution in Saskatchewan, about 20 long-service workers recently became certified technicians after three years of in-house training. Joe Maciag, manager of employee relations, said the crown corporation chose to make that investment because these people were in danger of being left behind.

Over the years, SaskWater has been raising the educational requirements of its staff, the bulk of whom now hold an engineering technology diploma, said Maciag.

But there are still the long-service employees who make up a fifth of SaskWater’s workforce, who have no post-secondary education.

“And it has always been a sore point with us. When we get together with the union, the union would say we’re not recognizing the years of service of these people and the skills they’ve learned.”

So the crown corporation established an on-the-job training program, in partnership with the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology. The aim of the program was to provide these long-service employees an opportunity to qualify as certified technicians, a designation recognized across Canada.

The work involved in developing the training program was more than Maciag had expected at first — it took them three years to develop the training. But that wasn’t the biggest challenge.

“There was a lot of cynicism on the part of the employees as to why we were doing this. If I’m in a job for 15 years and I think I’m doing a great job, and you come along and say, ‘You’re doing a good job but you don’t have the skills we want for us to progress,’ then there would be a strong suspicion that this was a way of weeding people out. So we had to make sure to build up that trust first. And this was probably the biggest challenge from the employees’ side.”

From the managers’ side, Maciag had to defend the program to those who felt the organization should avoid the hassle and just bring in new hires who already have the required credentials.

“We were talking about 30 people out of 200 people in the company, so it’s a significant population in our family. To me, it doesn’t make good HR sense just to write these folks off,” said Maciag.

“And one of the buzzwords out there is lifelong learning. So it’s a matter of taking these guys and telling them, ‘Hey, you can still learn. You can acquire better skills and have a career with us instead of being in a dead-end, low-paid job. From an HR perspective it was just the right thing to do.”

At Manitoba Hydro, manager of employee learning and development Harold Falk said the utility company has used prior learning assessment every time it has raised the educational requirement for a given position.

A new hiring policy, for example, requires that by 2007, human resource staff must have a bachelor of commerce degree, which takes about four years to complete.

“The dilemma is we’ve got a number of people who are in more junior classifications, who’ve been with the company for 15 years or so, and who do not have a four-year B.Comm. And because of their age and seniority and family status, they’re not going to go back to school to get the four-year B.Comm. Yet we see them as good candidates as successors” for the generation of HR staff who are expected to retire in a few years.

To create an opportunity for these 37 HR employees to upgrade and meet the company’s new educational requirement, the company created an internal standard that’s pegged against the University of Manitoba’s B.Comm program with an HR major. Again, the process involves making an inventory of the learning outcomes of each of the core courses of the university’s four-year program. This inventory then becomes the company’s internal standard for HR positions.

“The challenge (for the 37 HR employees) is for them to put together an inventory that would demonstrate that they have the knowledge and skills that are equivalent to the internal standard,” said Falk.

“So we’ve raised the bar somewhat. What we’ve said to these people is, ‘We won’t expect you to go back to school and get a full four-year B.Comm, but we do expect you to meet this internal standard. And in some cases, this would include some additional education and experience that you’ll have to gain.’”

The process of assessing the standards may be time-consuming, but Falk appreciates the rigorous methodology it imposes. “It really is a good, systematic process to objectively evaluate what a person brings to the table. If you look at a person’s resume, it’s pretty hard to quantify the experience or the education they bring if it’s not in the form of a degree or diploma or certificate.” The process also helps the organization identify the gaps in experience and education, so that training dollars will go to where they’re needed.

The company, Falk added, would consider going through the assessment process again in situations where a job has changed over time, and “the person doing the job is taking on the duties of a senior job but may not have the qualifications that we are asking for if we were posting for that job externally.”

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