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Geoff Johnson: Lifelong learning is not just a catchphrase — it's the new reality

No longer will today's typical model of up-front education, where ­learning is primarily done prior to entry into the job market, be any guarantee of career success, writes Geoff Johnson. Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press

High-school graduation, even the ­completion of an undergraduate degree program, is no longer the end point of anything. In fact, it is only the beginning of the graduate’s headlong plunge into a world of constantly learning “new stuff.”

With rapidly changing technology and the speed at which organizations must operate to be competitive, it’s clear that lifelong learning is essential for those who wish to remain relevant in the ­workplace and job market, given that the shelf life of many job skills is getting shorter and shorter.

A recent IBM report predicted many current employees will need “up-skilling” or “re-skilling” in the next three years, saying the average length of training needed to close skills gaps has increased from three days to 36 days in just the past five years.

The implications of this for public ­education are obvious: While ­“lifelong learning” is a common phrase in ­education mission statements at all ­levels, how to determine that graduates have actually become lifelong learners eludes us.

As a 2020 Forbes report points out, “searching for evidence of lifelong ­learning is a little like the search for evidence of life on Mars; many scientists believe we’ll eventually find it, but so far we haven’t.”

Can “lifelong learning” even be taught as an attitude before high school ­graduation? The same Forbes report ­suggests that’s a pointless question because it’s going to happen for most people anyway. “Lifelong learning will be thrust upon us as a staple of everyday work life,” says the report.

In 2020, according to Statistics ­Canada, about 14.8 million people aged 15 and older were employed on a full-time basis in Canada. About four in 10 (43 per cent) working Canadians said they were likely to look for a new job in the ­upcoming year, according to a new survey ­conducted by Ipsos for Randstad Canada.

“What the survey tells us is that a large number of employees do not want to be tied down to their current place of employment [and] are looking for new opportunities to see if the grass is greener in other organizations,” said ­Patrick Poulin of Randstad Canada.

It falls to employers to understand the increasing importance of on-the-job education and workforce development in order to retain and prepare workers for the jobs of both tomorrow.

No longer will today’s typical model of “up front” education, where learning is primarily done prior to job-market entry, be any guarantee of career success.

Instead, employees already in the workforce will have to come to terms with their own individualized ­learning systems that will support them at ­different career stages. These ­personalized ways to learn will also need to be easily accessed where and when required throughout a career.

Career-based learning will have to be much more flexible than traditional classroom-timetabled learning. It will have multiple entry and exit points based on a long-term approach to acquiring ­on-the-job skills, rather than one ­package of formal credentials based what a ­particular post-secondary school offers.

Lifelong-learning systems will require new pedagogical models, such as ­shorter-term or modular programs, ­stackable credentials (various ­diplomas and certifications and sometimes ­additional academic degrees acquired along the way, as opposed to all at once), modified and adaptable curriculum, and greater use of self-directed and online learning.

As organizations improve their own methodology for measuring and ­tracking job skills, academic pedigrees of ­education will matter less.

As Janice Burns, chief “people officer” at the education technology company Degreed, argues: “It’s no longer about who you know and what you know, but what you can do.”

Degreed, with offices in the U.S., London, Australia and the Netherlands, advertises itself as “the up-skilling ­platform that connects learning, ­talent development, and internal mobility opportunities in one place.”

Forward-looking organizations ­seeking to develop existing employees already engage in a number of ­practices, ­including coaching and mentoring, ­sometimes using experienced executives to groom junior employees.

Other employee-development ­practices include job rotation, which involves the movement of employees from one job to another so they can understand the different functions and processes of an organization.

Each of these processes will involve a wave of new learning. As a result, ­lifelong learning is no longer just a ­brochure catchphrase but the inevitable adjunct to every working day.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.