Improving the Participation of Low-Skilled Adults in Lifelong Learning in Canada

Learning as a tool to improve employability and earnings in the face of a rapidly changing labour market

This executive summary lays out highlights from the report Improving the Participation of Low-skilled Adults in Lifelong Learning in Canada, written by Max Bell School Master of Public Policy students as part of the 2021 Policy Lab.

Access the summary and presentation below, and read their full report here.

This policy brief provides insights into the factors that motivate adults to participate in lifelong learning opportunities in Canada. The insights and resulting policy recommendations from this project are intended to assist Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) in its ongoing efforts to increase participation in education and training. This research is very important to support the most vulnerable in receiving the needed support to pursue learning activities. Learning is considered one of the most effective avenues to improve employability and earnings in the face of a rapidly changing labour market and the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.

Lifelong learning is a broad concept. It is defined as the ongoing pursuit of knowledge for professional or personal reasons. It covers formal learning taking place in education and training institutions; non-formal learning taking place in non-educational institutions such as the workplace and through the activities of civil society organisations that do not lead to formal certificates; and informal learning which is non-intentional learning that is a natural accompaniment to everyday life.

In the context of this report, and as the project focuses on adults, lifelong learning pertains to people 24 years old or above who participate in training or education. To narrow the scope of this research, the project focuses on low-skilled adults, defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as individuals who did not complete their high school education or equivalent (OECD, 2019). This focus is aligned with the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation’s (SRDC) report to ESDC which recommended that adult education policy should pay particular attention to less-educated individuals (SRDC, 2020). It is important to note that the denotation of ‘low-skilled’ is misrepresenting. It may convey a negative connotation that people performing jobs requiring lower levels of formal education may lack the skills “to realise their full potential” (Lowrey, 2021). We, therefore, recognize that the ‘low-skilled’ term is imperfect, and our use of the term is not intended to devalue the jobs that these workers do. However, since ‘low-skilled’ is the term used in the literature, and due to the lack of better terminology, the word 'low-skilled' is strictly used in this report to describe adults who did not complete their high school education.

Respecting education, Canada ranks the highest globally in terms of university and college attainment. Yet, 8% of Canadian adults—approximately 2.2 million adults—did not complete their high school education as of 2019 (Statistics Canada, 2019). The reason for focusing on this group is that they are the most vulnerable to changes in the labour market, but they are the least likely to participate in learning activities to reskill or upskill. According to OECD, below 35% of low-skilled adults participate in adult learning compared to more than 70% of high-skilled adults (Government of Canada, 2019). The low rate of participation in adult learning by low-skilled adults is attributed to three broad categories of barriers: situational, institutional, and dispositional (MacKeracher, Suart, & Potter, 2006). Situational barriers represent any situation or environment in which adult learners are living through and with, that prevents effective participation in learning activities. Examples include time and financial constraints. Financial constraints are understood broadly to include the inability to afford tuition, childcare, transportation, internet, and other learning tools. Institutional barriers refer to institutional practices and procedures that discourage learning. They may include prerequisites, irrelevant courses, and inflexible schedules. Dispositional barriers capture learners’ negative attitudes and self-perceptions. Such negative perceptions have many sources. They could reflect a bad prior experience at school which results in a sense of fear or failure. They could also be a reinforcement of generational or societal mistrust in formal education. Regardless of the type or source of the barrier, a key takeaway is that these barriers do not occur in isolation. Thus, among low-skilled adults, whether to pursue further learning is never a straightforward decision. It is this feeling of being overwhelmed by various steps and hurdles that can make adult learning seems like an impossible, and perhaps, a worthless endeavour.

Acknowledging the importance of adult learning and the plethora of barriers that adults face, both the federal and provincial governments have worked to address this issue. In Canada, education and skills development are under the jurisdiction of provincial governments. Therefore, each of the 10 provinces and 3 territories are responsible for the planning, development, and implementation of adult education programs in their respective jurisdictions. The departments or ministries of education in each province or territory undertake the management of organization, delivery, and assessment of education at the elementary and secondary levels, for technical and vocational education, and post-secondary education.

Despite education being a provincial mandate, the federal government through ESDC plays a major role in adult learning. ESDC administers 23 umbrella programs and sub-programs under two branches, namely the Learning branch and the Skills Development and Employment branch. This myriad of programs reflects ESDC’s commitments to addressing the diverse needs among Canadians. Of the 23 programs, 6 programs primarily serve adult learners. They include Skills Boost Top-up Grant, Skills for Success, Union Training and Innovation, Labour Market Development Agreements (LMDAs), Workforce Development Agreements (WDAs), and the Canada Training Benefit. It then follows that most of our analysis and recommendations were built on our understanding of these programs. We also include some discussion about the Future Skills program due to its potential to apply a futuristic research approach and human-centred design to improve the responsiveness of current and future skills development programs. Further, we explored the Lifelong Learning Plan (LLP) even though this program is administered by Revenue Canada. The reason for this was that the LLP is intended to support adult learning by permitting eligible beneficiaries to use funds from their Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) to finance their own or spouse’s education.

Despite ESDC’s commendable efforts to support adult learners, existing programs fall short in addressing the barriers that many low-skilled adults face. The shortcomings partly stem from the inherent design of ESDC’s skills development programs and partly from administrative procedures. Our research has identified features of skills development programs that could be hindering effective adult learning. First, the mandatory full-time enrollment or minimum time commitments as part of eligibility criteria as seen in Skills Boost and LLP programs. Such strict enrollment requirements ignore the fact that adults juggle work and familial responsibilities. Another form of hindrance arises when programs do not provide adequate or timely income support. The Canada Training Benefit and the LMDAs are examples. Related to the point above, the LMDA income support is inflexible since beneficiaries are expected to actively search and take jobs that come along. This conditionality implies that returning to the labour force is prioritized rather than the learning outcomes. Likewise, programs that do not support micro-learning or short courses go against the preference among adult learners to choose what they deem as manageable course load and intensity. Examples in this category include the Canada Student Financial Assistance and the Skills Boost grant. On the other hand, shortcomings in administrative procedures affect learning indirectly. For example, employers show less interest in the wage subsidy sub-program of the LMDA due to tedious paperwork and reporting requirements. The main concern with the Future Skills program is that misalignment between research and persisting gaps in the current programs means some shortcomings are not addressed fast enough. Exacerbating this is a lack of open data sources which is key to fostering diverse analyses and solutions.

Against this backdrop, we recommend a policy framework that prioritizes the needs and barriers faced by low-skilled adults. Our proposed policy framework has two main parts. The first part comprises high-level suggestions on how ESDC can rethink, refine, create, and implement responsive programs. We call this a four-pillar approach—Anchor, Bundle-up, Definitive impact, and Evolve. Essentially, this approach calls for ESDC to base its support on few and durable programs, but with ample room to evolve the scope of support. Only where gaps persist, as we have demonstrated to be the case when serving adults with low educational credentials, ESDC should create a new program or sub-program. In line with the above observations, our team is proposing an all-inclusive program. For the purpose of this report, we call the program Learning among Adults facing Multiple Barriers, or LAMB for short.

The second set of recommendations provide detailed recommendations on how LAMB will function. Particularly, how ESDC can incorporate best practices geared to improve learning outcomes among adults. We lay out our approach by mapping the journey of low-skilled individuals from the initial stage of unwillingness to learn to successfully enroll in a learning activity. Below are the four stages where ESDC can intervene:

  1. Reach out: Low uptake of some learning and skills development programs is partially attributed to the public’s lack of awareness of their existence (ESDC, 2021). We recognize that ESDC cannot micro-target individuals by advertisement campaigns, and even if it decided to do so, evidence shows that advertisement campaigns are ineffective (OECD, 2019). In this regard, we recommend that ESDC considers making formal partnerships with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to delegate the task of creating awareness. ESDC already uses this approach of depending on NGOs to support young students coming from low-income families, so we encourage ESDC to use the same approach with low-skilled adults, as well. NGOs already work closely with low-skilled individuals who are multi-barriered and likely seek assistance from NGOs. These organizations have strong relationships with the targeted individuals and enjoy their trust which makes them capable of effectively communicating with low-skilled adults. Through competitive bidding, it is recommended that ESDC select a number of NGOs. By supporting these organizations with funds (through the proposed LAMB program) and providing the necessary information, they will act as communicators between ESDC and the targeted group by organizing awareness campaigns, hosting information sessions, and offering one-to-ones to spread awareness about the importance of learning and the available support programs that ESDC offers to support learners. We advise that partnerships with NGOs should be long-term (at least 3 years) as it takes time to build expertise and relationships on the ground. It is also recommended that ESDC prioritizes collaboration with NGOs in regions hardest hit by major disruptions, such as automation, where people are in urgent need to reskill or upskill.
  2. Guide: After creating awareness, low-skilled adults may still be hesitant about enrolling in learning activities due to a plethora of barriers including lack of motivation, perceptions about learning, underestimation of education value, and lack of ability to clearly define their educational goals and skills deficit. Moreover, there are several learning pathways that an adult can pursue these days, and there are plenty of government support programs, making the search process a daunting task. Therefore, they may require education-focused counseling to help them navigate the learning options and provide psychological support. The concept of education-based counseling was recently piloted in six European countries under Erasmus+ (EU's program to support education, training, youth, and sport in Europe), to test its efficacy in increasing the participation of less-educated adults in learning activities. Results of the project show that in Belgium, for instance, three out of four individuals receiving guidance successfully enrolled in a learning activity, demonstrating the effectiveness of educational counseling (Carpentieri, Litster, Cara, & Popov, 2018). Through the LAMB project, ESDC is envisioned to provide free education-based counseling services by recruiting educational counsellors. These counsellors are expected to offer personalized guidance sessions to define skills, diagnose barriers, and provide psychological support to ultimately help the client develop a tailored educational plan.
  3. Soft entrance to learning: After creating awareness through reach out and mitigating some behavioural barriers through counseling, low-skilled adults might still be hesitant about enrolling in a learning activity. This can be due to a negative experience as a student, which can lead to low self-esteem and nervousness about one’s inability to succeed in education. They might also be away from school for a long time, making them unready for a learning experience. These barriers have prompted countries like Sweden and Switzerland to adopt ‘soft entrance’ techniques which aim to soften and ease the entrance to learning experiences for adults. Also, gamification—using games in the learning environment—has been recently adopted by corporations to motivate and make the learning experience more interesting. Through ESDC’s Future Skills Centre, which is responsible for piloting futuristic ideas to help prepare Canadians for future jobs, we recommend experimenting with these soft entrance techniques to test its viability in the Canadian context. After testing and approving one or several soft entrance techniques, soft entrance can be integrated under LAMB, where it provides funding to individuals who wish to start their learning pathway with soft entrance.
  4. Remove barriers: Even when adults are motivated to learn, two major barriers may hinder their participation in learning activities: time shortage and lack of financial resources. To address these barriers, the proposed LAMB program will pay upfront for core (tuition fees) and ancillary support (e.g., transportation, childcare, books, and internet costs as needed). Further, in case learners decide to leave work to make time for learning, LAMB will provide a decent living allowance. LAMB also recognizes that other adult learners may not have the option of leaving work for a long time to enroll in a learning activity. Even if they could take time off work, family obligations may still get in the way. Thus, we envision that LAMB will address the time shortage barrier by granting flexibility. Funding eligibility for LAMB shall require neither full-time enrolment nor a minimum time commitment. We also envision that LAMB will fund micro-credentials (funding by credit hours to allow adults to take breaks if needed) and shorter duration intensive courses such as bootcamps.

Download the full version of this report here.

This Policy Lab was presented by our MPPs on July 15, 2021. Watch the video below:

About the authors

Amr Soliman

MPP Class of 2021

Haris Jahangeer

MPP Class of 2021

Ines Muganyizi

MPP Class of 2021

Noah Turner

MPP Class of 2021

Udita Upadhyay

MPP Class of 2021



See the rest of the Policy Lab reports


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