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Upskilling in North America: Striking the Right Balance for Employers and Employees

  • 3 Min Read

New research from D2L shows the need to make upskilling more accessible and affordable for employees and employers.

John Baker

These days, the need to keep our skills fresh and updated is more important than ever. But learning new skills or honing existing ones means striking a balance: Going back to school for a year-long certificate program may mean you have to sacrifice time with your kids—but not doing it may mean you’ll be passed over for promotion or growth in your role.

It’s a tough decision for a lot of people, especially if their employer doesn’t offer in-house training, as is the case for many small- and medium-sized businesses in North America. That segment is a key sector of the economy: As of 2020, businesses with fewer than 500 staff employed 47% of the workforce in the U.S. and, as of 2019, 88.5% of the private sector workforce in Canada.

D2L, with help from our friends at Innovative Research Group, polled employees and employers at hundreds of these mid-sized businesses. Our findings, which you can explore in our latest report, Enabling Upskilling at Scale: Adapting to Meet the Needs of the Working Learner, are illustrative of a potential problem. For example, we found that, while 72% of Canadian employees and 78% of their U.S. peers said they want to take on skills training outside their workplace, only 12% and 17%, respectively, said they did so in the previous year. What’s stopping them?

Time and money.

Despite the apparent interest from employees, only 34% of employers we polled in both the U.S. and Canada said they offered off-the-job training to their employees. And while many employers have in place programs to either subsidize or offer time off for off-the-job training, those policies tend to place the onus on employees to shoulder the costs—particularly in Canada. Of the employers we polled, only 12% of Canadian and 17% of U.S. companies had concrete policies to offer time off for off-the-job training, whereas roughly a third only did so on a case-by-case basis. Many employers approached reimbursement for training the same way, with only about a quarter in each country saying they reimburse the full cost regardless of the amount.

But here’s the thing: employers want to help. They know that having skilled employees is good for business—they rank recruiting and retaining skilled talent as their biggest challenge. As an extension of our new research, we want to offer some ideas to help solve these issues and help employers maintain competitive workforces for the future. Here’s three:

  1. Employers need to recognize the importance of providing financial support and time off for employees to incorporate learning into their busy lives outside of the workplace. At D2L, we’ve used our own platform, D2L Wave, to give our teams access to credentialed programs at higher education institutions that align with their skills. And we’ve introduced dedicated time off—Wave Days—to give people time to complete their work on those skills and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
  2. Higher education institutions must adapt to better serve adult learners and employers with high-quality, flexible and industry-aligned training. Institutions need to think beyond credit hours and imagine new models of programs to support working learners who have competing responsibilities and demands at home and at work.
  3. Governments at all levels have an essential role to play in unifying stakeholders around a collective vision for workforce development, including uplifting voices of small- and medium-sized enterprises in their consultations and exploring taxable incentives to encourage employer investments in training funds for employees.

I truly believe technology is a powerful way to address these issues. It can reduce costs for employers while giving employees easier access to up-to-date training from recognized institutions—that’s the core idea of our D2L Wave platform, which is being adopted for this very reason.

But that’s just one tool we can use. The broader solutions we explore in our report will require a collective effort from employers, higher education institutions and government—all of whom must quickly reorient themselves to this new reality. At D2L, we’re eager to help ensure that employers and employees across North America can keep growing, keep learning and keep our economy ready to respond to the future.

Read Enabling Upskilling at Scale: Adapting to Meet the Needs of the Working Learner in full.

Written by:

John Baker

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