Life-long learning takes stage at national skills roundtable

“If we are going to engage in actions we need to act now to get them to take root.”

The point of last month’s national roundtable on learning was clear: Canada has to stop squandering so much human potential.

Social and economic success is dependent upon a well-educated, well-trained population and while Canada is doing well on many measures, a lot more can be done. But, it will take a renewed commitment to education and life-long learning, said Graham Lowe, director of the work network at the Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN), sponsors of the roundtable.

The roundtable was the second of three meetings held on behalf of Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) to explore possibilities for enriching Canada’s labour pool.

“How do you create a truly innovative economy? You tap into the good ideas that everyone can offer,” said Lowe.

It is absolutely critical to produce as big a pool of talent as possible for employers to draw from, he said. But when people are not being educated or trained properly their potential is being wasted, employers miss out and the country as a whole suffers.

Representatives from business, labour, government and the academic community gathered in Edmonton to discuss the needs for life-long learning, how to remove barriers, how to provide access to opportunities, and to determine what goals should be set. The sessions are tackling recommendations from a special report released last year by a federally commissioned expert panel on skills.

Like the first roundtable in Toronto in early March on creating a more efficient labour market, senior policy-makers attended the session, including HRDC Minister Jane Stewart. Discussion groups gathered to debate the issues; their conversations were all recorded and will be synthesized in a report to be written by Lowe and presented to HRDC.

Roundtable participant David Paterson, executive director of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, said that while the introduction of the roundtables suggests the federal government wants to play a bigger role in education and training, constitutionally it is a provincial responsibility and other than Alberta there were no provincial government educational representatives in attendance.

“I’m interested that at least this is going on,” he said, but added, “I would have a little more confidence if the provinces were better represented.”

All of the provinces were invited, but only Alberta attended.

Canada is doing comparatively well on some measures, but has to build on those strengths and improve performance in the areas where the country is weak, said Lowe.

“It is widely recognized right across the industrial world that in order for economies to be competitive and innovative it is essential that all workers have access to continuous learning and skills development,”said Lowe.

One gap is in workplace training, he added. Workplace training only goes to about 30 per cent of workers. And most of those employees already have a high level of education and previous training. “Those who have get more,” he said. This happens in a lot of countries, and the roundtable was designed to, among other things, explore ways of correcting that imbalance in Canada.

Paterson agreed that Canada is doing quite well in some areas. For example, university enrolment is very good. But there are other indicators that make him nervous. Government expenditures on education have dropped while they are going up in the United States. “That can’t go on,” he said.

Paterson also said any initiatives from the federal government to improve the labour pool should benefit Canadian high-tech businesses, even if it means getting involved in provincial jurisdiction.

But he added a cautionary note. “This is good news to us if it doesn’t act as a distraction,” he said. “If ministers of education become more concerned about fighting off the feds, then (it becomes) about advancing their own agendas.” Another potential concern is if provincial governments think there is going to be outpouring of money from the federal government, they may be inclined to hold off on spending of their own, Paterson said.

However, Lowe said it appears that both levels of government are prepared to work together. There has been a devolution of power to provinces to take over workforce development, but the provinces recognize the importance of a pan-Canadian agenda. Alberta is putting a lot of emphasis on labour force development, and Ottawa’s recent speech from the throne indicated skills and learning have risen to the top of the agenda, he added.

Federal and provincial governments, and departments like Industry Canada, can take the lead on many of these issues, providing incentives and encouraging partnerships between employers, unions, post-secondary education institutions and training providers.

“I sense an awful lot of optimism and positive energy right now,” said Lowe. People feel there is an opportunity here while the economy is strong and employers have a keen interest in the matter. “If we are going to engage in actions we need to act now to get them to take root,” he said.

Judith Maxwell, president of CPRN, said about the roundtable: “There was a sense of commitment and urgency in this cross-section of the stakeholders that gave the meeting a lot of energy.”

These issues have been debated for a long time, but there seems to be a greater urgency now.

The challenge of providing life-long learning is very complex because so many independent players are involved. But occasionally it is important to take a systemic view of the whole process to look at the delivery of the service, said Maxwell.

“What we are seeing is that there is a common goal here. And if we can articulate that goal then we can get more of the pieces of the system acting coherently.” This isn’t about managing a system in command-and-control manner, she added. But if there is a common understanding about the direction and the roles that all of the players need to play, then the whole system would function better.

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