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Working and Learning

Upgrading and new skills


Now, more than ever in Edmonton and throughout North America, training and education are vital in the workplace. Although COVID work disruptions are a factor, the key triggers for the surge of industrial training and education are constantly emerging technology and jobs that require upgrading and updating skills.

Edmonton’s Suncor and other major employers are looking to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), NorQuest and MacEwan University to help with the industrial training and education of employees.

Things have changed. “Two big trends have emerged over the last five years,” explains Peter Leclaire, Vice-president Academic at NAIT. “First is the strong connection between formal education and the workplace, with a greater emphasis on creating Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) as a component of all programs.

“Research has identified that students with work experience within their educational program connect more quickly with employment opportunities after graduation and typically receive higher levels of compensation than their peers without these experiences. As well, employers see a quicker transition into the workplace.

“Second is the continuous nature of education and training, and the blurring of lines between formal credit-based education and informal non-credit training. Historically, education was a one-and-done approach for many of us. We got our credentials, entered the workforce and rarely returned for more education or training.

“Now skilled employees are entering with industry credentials, post-secondary credentials, informal credentials and combinations of all three. The unifying characteristic,” he says, “is that the learning is continuous. Students and companies are continuously engaging in learning to stay competitive.”

Even though the days of pandemic lockdowns and disruptions are (hopefully) in the rear-view mirror, there’s no doubt the impact fact on Edmonton’s industrial training and education was transformational.

“Organizations still want individuals who possess job knowledge, are receptive to updating their skill set, and have well-developed interpersonal skills. What has changed is content delivery,” says Dr. Richard Perlow, Dean of MacEwan University’s School of Business.

“The pandemic has increased the frequency of online learning. The trend will continue, particularly when it comes to on-demand learning where employees participate in training given online at a time convenient for them. One advantage is doing part of the training one day and finishing the rest of the program when the individual’s schedule permits.

“Online delivery also enables people who do not have access to in-person training programs, such as individuals living in rural and northern Alberta, the opportunity to expand their skill set,” Perlow points out.

Although popular, the online learning surge is, by no means, taking over from traditional, face-to-face training and education.

According to Dr. Heather McRae, Dean of MacEwan’s School of Continuing Education, “In Edmonton, there is still a preference for some face-to-face instruction, particularly for courses that are longer in duration. Learners like the opportunity to share ideas and experiences in an in-class setting with highly engaged instructors.

“In our online classes, we support engagement by encouraging the development of virtual communities of practice where learners can continue to engage and build their knowledge and skills. We meet with local and regional employers to identify needs and collaborate on the development of specific industry content.”

MacEwan specializes in the development of skills-based programming; providing skills training online or by face-to-face instruction; and working with companies and organizations locally, throughout Canada and internationally. While online programs are much in-demand, the focus is also on customized training and education and a return to classroom settings.”

“The challenges and disruptions ushered in with the COVID-19 pandemic have been the cause of the most changes in our training and education in the past five years,” points out Jackie Nguyen, Manager of Business Enterprises at NorQuest College. “Before March 2020, training delivered online would have been the outlier. Today in-person training makes up the outlier of the training that we offer. Edmonton is a vibrant and diverse city with a wide range of industries and sectors; NorQuest emphasizes customizing its training to the needs of the client. We do expect that more in-person training will come back to campus, but the learner experience through online training is so well received by our clients, it is certainly here to stay.”

NAIT’s Leclaire underscores the key role of technology in industrial training and education. “It is transforming both what is expected of adult education and what is taught. If life gets in the way of a student, they expect us to be adaptable and still provide them with the material that they may have missed. They expect flexibility and that’s because they can get that flexibility in so many parts of their lives.”

MacEwan’s McRae notes that technology is influencing how short-cycle skills-based programming is delivered. She says learners are increasingly interested in coursework that aligns directly with their career or job-specific needs. “Many of our courses incorporate virtual work-integrated learning opportunities, such as creating a policy or plan for a specific company or completing a team project based on an employer’s specifications.”

Major employers, like Suncor, rely on the latest options for industrial training and education. “A number of factors have contributed to the increase in training over the past several years,” says Leithan Slade spokesperson at Suncor, Edmonton. “Large scale implementations involving technology and process upgrades, as well as business simplification, required new training for awareness and upskilling. Migration from paper to system tracking resulting in higher reported training numbers, an increased focus on operator driven reliability in fixed plants operations, front line leadership training and specialized training for analytics roles,” he says.

“The growth and interest in training and development can also be attributed to the promotion of Suncor’s value of Curiosity and Lifelong Learning in support of a healthy and engaged workforce.” Slade adds thar the Suncor learning strategy is to embed learning into the flow of work, providing bite sized training in the moment through learning portals, and promoting leader-led and peer-led training and mentorship within the appropriate context.

“The addition of new on-demand online content has provided employees the opportunity to explore new areas of interest and to develop existing ones.”

Life changes. Work changes. People change. Industrial training and program options change. For example, when it comes to changing trends, NAIT has recently introduced programs like Digital Media and IT, Business Administration and Diagnostic Medical Sonography. At NorQuest, there’s strong demand for Leadership and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) training and lots of technology training, such as data analytics.

Perhaps more important than the delivery formats are the expectations and focus of the students. “Students often come to MacEwan with some sense of a career and academic direction. However, the time they spend engaged in the learning process – both within the classroom and in the broader co-curricular environment – helps to provide clarity in terms of their academic purpose,” says Tim Tang, Associate Vice-President of Students at MacEwan. Exploration and experimentation are key, and advisors also help students see the relevance of their program/courses and empower students to develop their strengths and talents in a particular field.”

No doubt about it. Industrial training and education are valuable. It’s a workplace boost for practical knowledge, soft skills, inter-department communication, professionalism and insight into internal functioning of an organization.