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Who pays for lifelong learning?

By Steph Guthrie

We hear a lot about the importance of continuous or lifelong learning these days, and for good reason. Continuous learning has a way of making life more interesting, and people more employable. Particularly in rapidly changing fields like digital media, a cat-like state of readiness to learn is unequivocally a job requirement. If lifelong learning is so vital to our economy, what infrastructure exists to support it?

Of course, in Canada we have a public education system at the elementary and secondary levels. If we had the privilege and/or good fortune of attending college or university (a sizeable slice of the population doesn’t), we probably learned a few things there. While colleges are explicitly career-focused and universities to some extent prepare students for what awaits them after graduation, each program’s degree of job-market-applicable mileage may vary.

Regardless of the program, it’s always a challenge for two-, three- or four-year programs to equip students with skills that will be in demand when they graduate. Efforts are emerging to steer students toward disciplines that align with regional labour market priorities. Meanwhile, efforts to keep the post-secondary community better apprised of labour market needs (for example, through timely and granular statistics) are more elusive, and will be even scarcer as resources for data collection erode at the federal level.

After this early-stage injection of (limited) institutional support for learning, what happens? While some industries and jobs have certification requirements and professionally regulated training programs, these typically come at a cost to the learner. The same can be said for elective continuous learning programs through an accredited post-secondary school or an independent provider.

Employers used to cover at least some employee training by third parties (or have their own intensive in-house programs), but these are precisely the kinds of costs that employers avoid by contracting out as much work as possible. As our economy sees a sweeping shift to a freelance/casual workforce, how will we collectively prioritize continuous learning?

The fact is, the cost of many professional development programs and conferences is prohibitive for a freelancer, particularly in industries where work is unpredictable and/or scarce. On top of the associated costs, how does a freelancer decide which programs will be most useful to them in meeting the needs of potential clients and staying on top of industry zeitgeists? When an employer pays for a program they tacitly endorse its content, while a freelancer may lack the time and broad industry insight to assess the value of a program.

Could the case be made for a public-private partnership on a freelancer professional development fund? I’m thinking something along the lines of this UK-based funding program for TV industry workers (the program is now defunct, but a case study could be interesting!). The idea doesn’t seem impossible to sell to employers. System-level prioritization of continuous learning would benefit employers on an aggregate scale, and on an individual scale if they employ lots of contractors. Employers would especially stand to gain from such a fund if they were afforded input on which programs are most desirable. Most importantly, this kind of initiative could make continuous learning accessible to all workers, while sending the message (in more than just platitudes) that a macro level, Canada values lifelong learning and cutting-edge skills.

Steph Guthrie is the moderator of the MediaTech Commons. She’s an internet animator and a full-time feminist. You can join her at the MediaTech Commons by signing up here. Already a member? Log in here.

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