Competency-based, pan-Canadian qualifications framework recommended

‘The need to fill our jobs with competent people has never been higher’

The skills gap — where jobs need people and people need jobs — continues to challenge the labour market and the economy, both in Canada and worldwide.

One solution? Canada should follow the lead of more than 140 countries and create a competency-based, pan-Canadian qualifications framework, according to Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think tank.

“The need to fill our jobs with competent people has never been higher, and we do have a well-trained workforce in Canada, but people are not able to articulate well what it is they are able to do well, so we’re constantly missing the match between people. Now is the time to develop the framework, and then we’ll be able to understand what the gaps are that need to be filled,” said Janet Lane, director of the human capital centre at Canada West.

“If we have a framework, we can see where else you can go with those competencies and what gaps you would need to fill if you wanted to move into a different job, and that would make it so much easier for us to train and upskill and reskill our workforce, as shifts and changes happen.”

The framework would help with the development, classification and recognition of skills, knowledge and competencies across a hierarchy of defined levels, with links to recognized qualifications and associated occupations, said the think tank.

Great West is suggesting a made-in-Canada governance model based on the Standards Council of Canada.

New realities

A framework approach makes all the more sense with the growth of the gig economy, said Lane.

“If you don’t have a way of badging or credentialing what it is you learned in your last job so you can go to your next job and say, ‘I learnt this in school and I’ve learnt this, this and this since then,’ then how do you get that next job, how do you go up against all the other graduates, people in the economy, who have some way of proving they’re doing that?” she said. “We’ve got to do a better job of saying, ‘What you’re learning on the job has as much value as what you learned when you were in school’ to the employer.”

Many employers use algorithms to go through a flood of applications, so if jobseekers don’t have the right buzzwords, the right diploma or the right degree, they will be discarded right from the start, she said, “because these programs cannot look at the fulsome, holistic person… and yet a person whose resumé has been discarded may be able to do the job very, very well.”

We’ve always had to reskill the workforce as it’s gone through churn and upheaval, but the pace of change is so much greater now, said Jeff Griffiths, principal at Griffiths Sheppard Consulting Group in Calgary, citing changes in technology.

“The economy is changing so fast, so we need some kind of mechanism to be redeploying the talent that exists within the economy and upskilling people throughout their careers — not just patches at the beginning.”

Many skills are common to more than one occupation, and more than one industry. But, there is no way to know for sure which skills are shared with which occupations, as occupational standards in Canada tend to be “stovepiped” along occupational lines, according to Canada West’s report Matchup: A Case for Pan-Canadian Competency Frameworks. For example, many of the competencies for an HR manager may be similar to those needed by a purchasing agent, but there is no way of visualizing the path from one to the other.

Mind the gap

So, how has this gap or mismatch come about?

The education system doesn’t always know what the industry needs, and competency-based education is a fairly new field. On the other hand, employers don’t have a framework for identifying what competencies are needed by workers, said Lorraine McKay, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Human Resource Systems Group in Toronto.

“There’s many people who would fit the bill but don’t necessarily have that same credential, so they’re equally qualified but employers don’t know what to look for, and how it equates. This is even compounded further for the people from overseas looking for work.”

Employers are also hesitant about taking a competency approach.

“They have to take a long-term vision,” said McKay. “Employers need to find that visionary within their organization who will support this, and then they have to get management support to give them time to work on this, and they don’t necessarily see the fruits of their labour right away — it can take years.”

The federal government and some provinces have invested money in defining competency frameworks or occupational standards, and tools to go along with them, but it tends to be fragmented by industry or sector, and when financial support is withdrawn, a lot of these sector councils cease to exist, she said.

But a number of colleges and universities are mapping their curriculum to competencies, she said.

“They’re very keen to do this because they need to make sure that education is relevant to industry.”

Getting started

When it comes to figuring out the framework, the hardest part is assessment and equivalency, said Lane.

“First of all, we have to break the job down by tasks and subtasks; then we have to figure out what level of competence is needed to do that. That is time-consuming and it will take resources to do, but then (it’s about) how do you assess, what are those criteria for objective assessment of that competence, and seeing what the equivalence is,” she said.

“But the cool thing is we don’t have to start from scratch, the rest of the world is a lot further ahead than we are. There are different standards of practice around the world, and doing something in Korea is basically the same thing as doing something in France, is basically the same thing as doing it in Canada.”

The hardest part is getting a standard, and establishing the common terminology and definitions and approach — but there are lots of examples from around the world, said Griffiths.

“We have this notion somehow that we’re different, not just at a national but a regional (level), but the reality is the work people do in particular fields and particular industries tends to be the same around the world because it’s global, not regional,” he said.

“If you look at where the framework approach has been successful, these are countries where you’ve got a well-developed education system… you’ve got governance… you’ve got mechanisms for co-operation between levels of government, between industry and government, and there’s a rule of law,” said Griffiths. “And Canada is a country that falls into that category… because we have so much of those infrastructure pieces in place now.”

There’s also the challenge of the different regions in Canada. The provinces and territories have jurisdiction over education, training and workforce development. And while each region could develop its own frameworks independently, with a Canadian framework serving as a translator  (as is done with the European framework), Canada West would prefer another approach because of the complexity and expense of developing and co-ordinating 13 frameworks.

“We don’t have to do the whole country, every job, every occupation right now; we can start in one sector and get agreement across the country in that one sector,” said Lane. “Once we’ve set the protocol for how this framework is created, then we’ll be able to add to it over time as other industries and sectors and employers and training providers come in on the deal.”

Canada West thinks it would make sense to start something in manufacturing because it’s fairly technical, it’s becoming more customized and there’s more automation, said Lane.

“It makes it a little easier if it’s not so much conceptual as it is technical, the kinds of competencies that you need in that environment. And yet a lot of what’s going on in manufacturing is not already covered by a regulated trade, for instance, so that makes it a little bit easier to squeak in there as a place to really show that this works.”

In manufacturing, the jobs are going to be significantly affected by automation and robotics, requiring greater skills, said Griffiths.

“And it’s a sector that encompasses so many parts of the Canadian economy, and has a lot of contribution to the GDP, so we see it as being an area where this could potentially have a significant impact,” he said.

“And, ideally, (we should) do it in a place where they don’t have right-to-practice legislation and regulatory bodies, all of which have to be accommodated within that system. That has the potential for turning into a bit of a quagmire.”

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