Lessons for Canadian Private Career Colleges in a post-pandemic economy

Lessons for Canadian Private Career Colleges in a post-pandemic economy

Private career colleges need to remain relevant to thrive. The key is to focus on the students and their needs, recognizing what’s going on in the economy as well as needs in the market.

Focus on learning outcomes

There are opportunities for Canadian private career colleges that concentrate more on student success and less on fattening the student body. By focusing on learning and learning outcomes, the rest will follow.

The American for-profit post-secondary education company Corinthian Colleges, and by extension its Canadian subsidiary, Everest College, arguably failed because of a heavy focus on student intake, versus pedagogy. According to many student accounts, Corinthian used a predatory approach to lure students with false promises of career prospects, and it wasn’t alone.

Everest had been the largest private career college in Ontario. In 2015 Ontario’s Superintendent of Private Career Colleges suspended Everest’s licence to operate due to financial concerns. The result was the sudden collapse of the school’s 14 Ontario campuses, leaving 2,400 students out on the street, having to deal with train-outs, and reliant on the Ontario government to write an immediate fat cheque.

Thankfully, things have changed for the better since 2015 within the private career college sector.

Focus on labour market demands

The post-pandemic economy has exposed a huge worker shortage in Canada. Private career colleges play a huge and ongoing role in addressing that gap.

There is a lack of personal service workers — for both working parents and the elderly, a demand exacerbated by an aging population. Supply chains have been interrupted by the transportation sector’s inability to transport food and goods because there simply aren’t enough truck drivers. The country’s health care sector was in dire need of specialized health workers, long before COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the plant-based movement has gained ground, creating new opportunities that can be addressed by Canadian private career colleges. The electric vehicle industry (don’t rule out flying cars!), as well, is quickly developing as governments around the globe attempt to become less reliant on fossil fuels.

There is potential for education around the increasing popularity of these movements and exploration of corresponding career opportunities. At the same time, environmental concerns have highlighted the need for attention to natural disasters such as wildfires and landslides. It is beyond a matter of choice to focus on these areas, but rather a matter of survival on the blue planet.

Consider, for example, how the use of drones has exploded in recent years for applications such as security, surveillance, emergency response and infrastructure inspection.

A recent report shows that the global commercial drone service market will reach US$41.3 billion by 2026, with drones in the energy sector representing the biggest share.

In the energy industry, drones are used for inspections, mapping, surveying, localization and other activities. Businesses in construction and mining are using drones to more easily comply with the extensive laws and regulations around worker safety. A southern California drone operator — known as the Malibu Artist — routinely captures footage showing just how close 10-foot+ apex predators (great white sharks) come to the shoreline and to humans near Malibu Pier, where my children used to swim with me routinely! Fortunately, The Malibu Artist has also shown us how peaceful and misunderstood these creatures are. See for yourself.

As the demand for drone services grows, so too will the need for skilled operators.

The relevance of vocational training

Increasingly, skills are becoming more important than credentials. And although credentials are still necessary, they are not, on their own, enough for students to succeed.

The various vocations are increasing entry-level salaries to attract a much-needed workforce. Canada has a severe housing shortage, for example, laying bare the need for skilled builders and other related skills.

That could be attractive for many new Canadians looking for opportunities, given that the salaries for skilled labourers are relatively high compared to what someone may have earned in their country of origin.

Private career colleges can help them achieve those goals with training and prepare them to become truck drivers, drone operators, graphic designers and workers in specialized medical fields. The additional benefit is that those skills are portable. Those with vocational training can take their skills to other jurisdictions where they’re needed.

Extension programs

Universities are now trying to muscle in on short duration and lower-cost programs. Colleges and universities, private and public, are all focused on extension programs or microcredential programs that are skill and re-skill based.

Microcredential badging programs offering training in cryptocurrency, web development and cybersecurity are being made available by universities in every department as they search for more sources of revenue. I have dedicated a separate column to microcredentials if you are interested in learning more.

In the absence of donors, universities are being forced to adapt and are moving into areas that were once
the exclusive domain of colleges through an increasing number of extension programs. It’s a movement that started in the United States and has migrated north of the border.

These programs do blur the lines. But the way universities position themselves will also limit them in the extension programs they offer and the students they attract. The distinction between colleges and universities remains clear, although Ontario has recently opened up limited degree-granting opportunities to public colleges.

Stigmatization of vocational and applied streams

Can Canada destigmatize blue-collar work? Society’s obsession with white-collar work has left a vacuum in vocations such as the skilled trades, and we are just beginning to feel the pinch of what that means for Canada.

Long ago, the Swiss adopted a dual vocational education and training system, which is recognized around the world as a model for integrating workplace and academic training. It streams 75 per cent of students into vocational training and the result is very low youth unemployment. It also serves to eliminate the stigma associated with vocational and applied streams elsewhere.

Canada’s immigration policy is still more favourable to addressing labour market demand than in the United States, which appears much more focused on security and the protection of domestic jobs. Ontario, home to most of the country’s private career colleges, has recently relaxed requirements for schools in their intake of international students. The intent to bring in international students to help further build a skilled labour force and create a broader tax base is clear.