The Importance of Workplace Learning

I recently met with a young woman who had been referred as a potential candidate for a position within our organization.

Likely about 25 years of age, she had an undergraduate and a masters degree, an award winning thesis, and several years of relevant experience under her belt. She was also clearly looking for the kind of challenges, learning and growth our organization could provide. There was no doubt that as a bright, articulate, technology-literate hardworking young woman, she would be a perfect fit within our organization.

The only problem was we couldn’t afford to hire her.

If I was still in Ontario it likely wouldn’t have been a problem but, here in Alberta, we’ve been impacted by the downside of a hot labour market and a shortage of qualified employees.

In this particular case, the young woman was currently working in a government position that paid her an annual salary of $57,000 plus benefits. Even though she was aware that it was the labour shortages that had allowed her access to a job and wage normally not available to someone with her skills and experience, it meant she wasn’t in a position to make a leap to another less lucrative position. 

This is but one example of how, in times of both boom and bust, the immediate needs of employers too often get in the way of longer term thinking and planning, particularly in the area of the workplace learning this motivated young woman was seeking.

The issue of employer investment in workplace learning has been the subject of recent discussion at the national and local levels and a number of studies spearheaded by the Canadian Council on Learning and the Canadian Policy Research Networks.

The goal of their recent research was to identify practical steps to ensure that the quantity and quality of workplace learning in Canada matches the needs of the economy, and maximizes the potential of Canadian workers.

There are a number of reasons why an investment in developing the skills and knowledge of Canadian workers is something that needs our attention.

The first is simple demographics. The aging of the baby boom cohorts will bring about a slowing of labour force growth. In the past the ongoing influx of youth into the workforce meant we were also getting new skills. Today, that’s something we can’t rely on as most of the people who will be in the workforce in 2015 are in already in it today. As a result we need to make the best use of the workers we have now.

Another reason for the growing importance of workplace learning is the rapid pace of change in technology in combination with the demands of the global knowledge economy. This has resulted in higher and frequently changing skill requirements on the job.

Additionally, changes in the labour market also point to the increased importance of workplace learning. On the one hand, skill shortages are being experienced in some sectors or regions while other sectors or regions experience layoffs and/or sustained high levels of unemployment.

Canada’s performance in workplace learning has been mediocre. Less than 30% of adult workers in Canada participate in job-related education and training, compared to almost 35% in the United Kingdom and nearly 45% in the United States. 

While there are barriers to making workplace learning more of a priority instead of it being the first budget line cut, Canadian Council on Learning’s recent report called “Employer Investment in Workplace Learning”, provides a number of promising practices. 

These include developing partnerships among firms, workers, unions, governments and educational institutions; active advocacy by business organizations to encourage a training culture; a tool box with a wide variety of supports and initiatives and the flexibility to tailor their application to specific needs and circumstances; awareness campaigns and the collection of evidence to convince employers about the benefits and returns of investing in workplace learning; and enhanced government financial incentives to firms and/or individuals.

Albert Einstein once said, ‘No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it. We need to see the world anew.”  Workplace learning is a key strategy for helping each of us see our world anew.

Posted on 05-03-09

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