Why Private Institutions and NFPs Should Pre-screen Microcredential Programs

Why Private Institutions and NFPs Should Pre-screen Microcredential Programs

During the pandemic there has been a glaring supply chain problem, leaving far too many warehouses and retail store shelves empty. But the skills shortage in Canada and the United States predated that problem. The push to digital business brought on by the pandemic, an aging workforce, industry demand and the breakneck pace of technological development have laid bare the current cracks in the labour market.

In June, there were more than 800,000 job vacancies in Canada, and organizations of all sizes say they are struggling to find candidates with the right skills, according to a report by Global News.

Skills are the fuel that keep the labour market churning, and in today’s competitive job market, they must be constantly upgraded to stay in lockstep with industry demand.

Can microcredentials solve the skills gap?

Across the country, provinces are investing in microcredential programs — short courses designed to allow adult learners to quickly acquire new skills or upgrade existing ones — as an efficient path to creating a skilled and agile workforce. In Ontario, the provincial government has allocated almost $60 million over three years to support the development of microcredential programs.

While universities and colleges have offered microcredential courses for years through continuing education, a recent survey by Colleges and Institutes Canada shows a huge uptick in activity: 56 per cent of responding colleges are already offering microcredentials, either online, in person, or both, and 33 per cent are planning to or are interested in doing so.

The types of courses available include everything from database design to digital marketing and interior design and span virtually every sector, including information technology, health sciences, engineering, and many others.

What qualifies as a microcredential?

Five main features distinguish a microcredential from other types of courses:

  • Short in duration (eight to 200 hours) and easy to complete
  • Competency-based and focused on specific skills
  • They are like Lego, stackable in combination with other microcredentials
  • Aligned with industry need
  • Verifiable and digitally sharable.

Ensuring that course content aligns with employer-defined competencies is critical. Misheck Mwaba, president and CEO of Bow Valley College, said the following in a recent interview with Maclean’s magazine:

“Without authentic assessment, there is no microcredential”

The specific learning outcome of a microcredential program is a skill, as opposed to say liberal arts, historical, scientific, or other academic knowledge. For reasons which are too detailed for a short blog article, this is all the more reason for institutions to pre-screen such programs as I’ve suggested below.

Guidance for corporate trainers

While universities and colleges will both be important players in the delivery of skills-based mini-courses, they are not the only potential sources of microcredentials. Non-profit organizations, professional associations and corporate trainers are all flocking to this space as a way to boost and even de-risk their bottom lines– and engage their respective communities.

And that’s where the potential trouble lies. Private organizations looking to offer badge or credential programs must first ascertain if the intended course content falls under the jurisdiction of the Private Career Colleges Act, 2005 (PCCA). If it does and the program provider is not among the Superintendent of Private Career College’s (Superintendent) existing registrants, the provider must be operating under a valid exemption not only to deliver but merely to advertise such programs. The mere act of advertising without actually offering a program that is subject to the registration requirements, can and has on many occasions attracted sanctions. Those sanctions can include administrative monetary penalties which roll over daily, or even a restraining order. I had highlighted the importance of the registration requirements in a previous column.

Pre-screening: complying with regulations

The easiest way for an organization to determine if its proposed microcredential program needs to be approved by the province is to pre-screen it with the Superintendent, which oversees and approves vocational programs in Ontario.

Generally, if a program is less than 40 hours or costs less than $2,000, it will have an absolute exemption from regulation under the PCCA, but even so, it is still prudent to go through the screening process to ensure you’re on the right side of the law. I have worked with many corporate trainers over a span of years who had no idea that their existing programs were on the Superintendent’s radar screen until they got a literal knock on their door from the Superintendent’s designates. While organizations (whether corporate trainers or otherwise) may avail themselves of a third-party funding exemption where no less than 100 per cent of their students are funded by the organization or third-party organizations (versus the process of advertising and/or offering the program to students or member of the general public for a fee), this exemption is remarkably inflexible.

Organizations can get easily caught out when they advertise a program that requires approval under the PCCA, which has not been registered. As a regulatory lawyer who routinely advises colleges, language schools, investor groups, and corporate trainers, I have seen a big uptick in the number of clients who need guidance navigating this space to ensure they comply with regulations. A growing number of institutions (registrants and non-registrants) have been the subject of the Superintendent’s warrantless regulatory search power (s.38 “Inquiry”), followed by sanctions.

Answering labour market demands

Does the surge in microcredential programs signal the end of traditional models of education such as university degrees or diplomas? Certainly not, but micro-courses that provide a fast and easy way to upgrade skills or learn new ones are poised to play a significant role in continuing education. They are here to stay.

Going forward, employers will prioritize job candidates who have both a degree or a diploma in addition to microcredentials that validate their specific skills.

In the knowledge economy, a commitment to lifelong learning isn’t simply something that’s nice to have; it’s an imperative.

Microcredential providers will have to de-risk both advertising and program delivery, by pre-screening.

Questions, feedback or comments? Please reach out. I’d love to hear from you.