The pandemic has many workers looking for new careers, but a new report from Future Skills Centre and Blueprint shows they don’t have the information they need to choose the right skills training program

While the hype around a Great Resignation in Canada fades in the face of recent reporting and labour force data, the scale of job and career transition in the economy is no mirage.

By October 2021, overall Canadian labour force participation had basically returned to pre-pandemic levels. Yet, to highlight one heavily impacted sector, there are 17 per cent fewer people working in accommodation and food services. That’s more than 200,000 Canadians — about the population of Regina — who have moved on from jobs in restaurants, hotels and other parts of the service economy.

But for many Canadians, leaving a job for what they perceive as greener pastures in, say, health care or cyber security requires not just courage, but the skills and credentials for entry. So, which education or re-training program do they choose? And how do they know if it will open the door to a new career?

In Canada’s increasingly messy marketplace for learning, navigating the options is getting harder. This is true for young Canadians seeking pathways for their initial careers, and even more so for adults who require learning to re-enter the workforce, upskill and advance in their careers, or transition to new occupations.

What information and wayfinding tools are available to learners — and the career professionals who help them — to help them make these critical education decisions? And how can they be assured of the quality and outcomes of these increasingly diverse providers and programs?

Traditionally, learning pathways took you through high school; a public university or college, offering degree, diploma or apprenticeship work-learn programs; and maybe a return visit for continuing education courses. For out-of-work adults, disadvantaged youth and newcomers seeking skills training, provincial employment service systems could connect you with a suite of basic skills, GED programs, language or bridge training options.

Today, this marketplace for education and training is exploding. New players have been rapidly entering the scene in Canada, including private career-focused universities and online program managers, multinational workforce development companies, tech-focused coding schools, and online education platforms like Coursera, LinkedIn Learning and Udemy. With them have come an array of new types of programs: micro-credentials, fully online degree programs, intensive bootcamps, industry pathways training, and professional certificates offered by global firms like Google, IBM and PwC. U.S.-based non-profit Credential Engine recently reported a surge in the number of credentials in the United States to nearly one million, with more than half from non-academic providers, including digital badges and completion certificates.

On the one hand, this is a powerful and positive signal that the learning marketplace is evolving to meet the demands of workers, employers, governments and labour markets through more opportunities, and more customizable pathways, for career-focused learners.

On the other, it poses a new and growing challenge: navigating this messy marketplace. It also raises two important questions, not just for those seeking skills training, but also for the employers hiring from these programs and governments providing large grant and student aid investments in them: What information and wayfinding tools are available to learners — and the career professionals who help them through employment service, guidance counsellor offices or career coaching — to help them make these critical education decisions? And how can they be assured of the quality and outcomes of these increasingly diverse providers and programs, when the opportunity costs in money, time and career/life satisfaction are so high?

In Canada, we don’t have good answers to either of these questions.

We face a national “learning information” gap on two fronts. First, we lack common and comparable program-level information to inform basic learning choice decisions — like what school to go to, what program best meets one’s career goals and life-fit, how much it will cost or how long it will take to complete. This has spurred recent calls for better higher ed transparency, and the mapping of Canada’s learning ecosystem.

Second, we lack timely, public information about program-level quality assurance and graduate outcomes, like graduation rates and post-grad employment and income levels. Both are essential in helping Canadians make informed decisions about the value of an educational choice.

These gaps produce not just navigation challenges, but growing risk to Canada’s public universities and colleges within provincial higher education systems. They have a strong track record of educational quality but have long resisted providing public information to allow learners to compare programs and outcomes. This puts them at a competitive disadvantage with insurgent new private providers, bootcamps and global online education platforms, which are aggressively marketed and report on graduate success rates to attract learners.

To put it another way, if Canadian public institutions want to compete on brand reputation, rather than demonstrated quality and graduate success rates, against global giants like Google and IBM, who would you put your money on?

In a report released last week for the Future Skills Centre (FSC) and Blueprint, we point to some promising developments. An array of players — governments, workforce systems, large firms and tech startups, philanthropists and non-profits — are introducing tools and resources to help individuals and career practitioners navigate learning choices. These include public websites (like Canada Job Bank), wayfinding apps (like FutureFit AI) and other tools, often integrated with other career resources such as labour market information about in-demand jobs and skills.

Still, it’s clear that this learning navigation space is nascent. Its key required input, timely and reliable learning data, doesn’t yet exist in Canada. And, as ours and other research suggests, neither learners nor career guidance professionals are yet equipped to use these tools effectively. In our report, we offer some solutions, including an expansion of the Labour Market Information Council’s work with FSC and other partners like Statistics Canada to include a focus on learning data.

Addressing this “learning transparency” challenge will be essential to supporting individual Canadians and ensuring a talented and flexible labour force for the economic uncertainty ahead.

The Great Resignaton is a compelling idea because it evokes workers empowered or enlightened to leave dull or low-paying jobs for something better. But the reality is that, while this is what many Canadians want, they need help navigating the complex learning-to-career pathways to reach their desired destination.