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Enabling Upskilling at Scale

Adapting to Meet the Needs of the Working Learner

For five years, D2L has published an annual series detailing the actions employers, higher education institutions, training providers and governments need to take to better support lifelong skills development. The forces of change we identified in previous papers—demographic shifts, rapid advancements in technology, growing globalization and a shortened half-life of skills—continue to reshape the ways in which we work and learn at an accelerated pace.i Businesses are facing pressure to make smart investments in innovative, competitive technologies while at the same time developing a skilled workforce to help navigate larger workforce and industry changes. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), defined as those businesses with fewer than 500 employees, employ 47% of the workforce in the United States (U.S.)ii and 88.5% of the private sector workforce in Canada.iii While employing a significant portion of the workforce, SMEs are often absent from literature around skills development, and have fewer resources to support learning and development at scale compared with larger employers. In December 2021, D2L commissioned Innovative Research Group to conduct surveys of employees and decision makers who work in SMEs, in both the U.S. and Canada, to better understand the infrastructure and policies SMEs have in place to support lifelong learning and the barriers that get in the way of the increased uptake of training programs.1 The findings of this survey show that SMEs need more support:

  • Recruiting and retaining talented employees are the biggest human resources challenges facing SMEs in both the U.S. and Canada today, outranking considerations about compensation, adapting to innovation and technology, offering a competitive benefits policy, and navigating a remote work policy. Only 21% of Canadian SMEs report feeling very confident that they will have the skills and talent needed to grow their organizations over the next three years, compared with 47% of U.S. SMEs who say the same.
  • Few employers provide financial support or time off for employees to take on external training. While about half of SMEs in both countries (48% in the U.S. and 49% in Canada) report their firms provide internal training for job-specific skills development, only about one in three SMEs (34% in both the U.S. and Canada) say they provide support for training opportunities outside of the workplace. In both countries, SMEs report that the barrier preventing them from increasing financial support or time off for external training is the perception that internal or on-the-job training is sufficient (39% in the U.S. and 34% in Canada).
  • Uptake of external training programs remains low for employees despite interest, with major barriers cited including cost and not having the time. Only 17% of U.S. employees and 12% of Canadian employees report taking on training with outside training providers in the last 12 months. This is despite 78% of U.S. and 72% of Canadian employees reporting being somewhat or very interested in taking on training. The most cited reasons for employees not taking on further training are the high financial cost (42% in the U.S. and 43% in Canada) and being too busy at work or due to other childcare, family, or other commitments (around 30–35% in both countries).

Where do we go from here?

Enabling upskilling at scale leaf
  • Employers need to recognize the importance and urgency of investing in skills development for their workforce, provide financial support and time off for employees to take on learning and implement technologies that provide ready access to learning that maps against company or industry skills needs. With the speed of technological change, employers cannot reasonably predict all the skills they’ll need years in advance. They need to look at all possible options to build and maintain the workforce they need to remain competitive and scale up. This includes recognizing that investing in skills development for new and existing employees is key to improving attraction and retention. Employers also need to develop a multimodal learning and development strategy that includes financial support and time off to take on credentialed and industry-aligned programs at higher education institutions and industry associations.

  • Institutions need to think beyond credit hours and imagine new models of programs to support working learners. This will require clarity on the needs and circumstances of working learners—how they learn best, what their primary motivators are for taking on training, and where they need support to ensure their learning is valuable. Institutions also need to actively seek out partnerships with employers, associations, and unions to encourage learners to continuously upskill over the course of their careers.

  • Employers, higher education institutions, associations, unions, and researchers already agree that cross-sector collaboration is essential to helping employers address skills gaps and supporting individuals in navigating the changing nature of work. However, collaboration is highly fragmented across industries and employers. Governments need to uplift the voices of SMEs in their consultations to identify supportive policy changes that can help address the financial and time pressures individuals are facing in taking on training. Taxable incentives to encourage employer investments in training funds for employees should be explored.

Enabling Upskilling at Scale

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i D2L (2018). The Future of Work and Learning In the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

ii U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy (2020). 2020 Small Business Profile. 

iii Statistics Canada (2020). Key Small Business Statistics — 2020. Statistics Canada.

1 In both the United States and Canada, small businesses are those with 1 to 99 employees. Medium-sized businesses are those with 100 to 499 employees. Companies with fewer than 20 employees were not surveyed as part of this study.