by Gloria Welton
Recently a first of its kind Workforce Day brought together employers, post-secondary representatives, and employment-related service providers and program staff. This was a great way to start a conversation about the need for a strong workforce and how to work together.
The Honorable Jenn Redmond, Minister of Workforce, Advanced Learning, and Population, and department staff organized the inaugural day. “Workforce Day 2023 was an opportunity for employers from across PEI to come together to collaborate, learn, and share experiences that will assist in strengthening our workforce.”
Minister Redmond said she was delighted to look around the room to see so many industries and employers represented. “We are all here for a common interest in investing in people. Our most valuable resources are the people who work across many sectors, making PEI a great place to work.
“Our people put food on our tables, take care of our little ones, and take care of us when we are sick. They grow our communities through discovery, innovations, culture, and more, and help build our communities.
“Our province has seen strong growth over the years, thanks to people’s resiliency, determination, and talent. As Minister of Workforce, Advanced Learning, and Population, I see a clear link between making important workforce investments that are strategically aligned with our post-secondary institutions and supporting graduates to get the right skills, knowledge, and opportunities to meet the current and future needs of our workforce.
“This can’t be done in silos; we need strong alignments and partnerships with experts and employers. Across sectors, we are facing a labour crunch. That is why days like today are very important.
“With so many voices and perspectives in the room, today is a day to share ideas, challenge each other to think differently, and find pathways to long-term solutions for a healthy and sustainable workforce. I look forward to continuing to build partnerships and working on creative solutions together.
“I had the great pleasure of working for Holland College for a number of years and truly loved being a part of students’ journeys to the workforce. It is amazing to help students find their passion, watch them work hard to gain the knowledge and skills needed to move into the workforce, reach their desired goals, and start their careers. They always went with courage, bravery, and bold energy.
“We need to be bold together to come up with solutions that make sense for Island employers and workers.”
A dynamic panel discussion addressed the current state of the PEI workforce and how to navigate environmental and economic challenges.
On the panel were Dr. Sandy MacDonald, President of Holland College, Dr. Greg Keefe, Interim President and Vice-Chancellor of UPEI, and Tobia Isa, Projects and Service Manager at AKA Energy Systems. They shared what the pathway forward looks like from the perspective of their workplace.
Dr. Sandy MacDonald says the pandemic has heightened the labour shortage to levels we never thought possible, and the workforce of today is focused on work/life balance like never before.
“Our hard-working up-and-coming workforce prefers not to work overtime, evenings, and weekends. With that in mind, we need to be more flexible. The labour shortage is here and even with an influx of immigration, we are still going to be short.
“More upskilling and reskilling is a very important aspect of preparing the present and future workforce. We have a long way to go but we are seeing the path ahead. Holland College has made great strides in partnering with other colleges, universities, employers, and government.”
He says the college has for many years listened and worked with industry through established advisory boards for each program which provide feedback regularly.
“CASTL is one of the latest great examples of working together. The Canadian Alliance for Skills and Training in Life Sciences (CASTL) provides world-class technical skills development and training in life sciences specializing in biopharmaceutical manufacturing. It is a unique partnership between academia, industry, and government to address the future skills needs of the fast-growing bioscience sector.
“We expanded the Early Childhood Care and Education program from a two-year program with 36 seats to five different approaches to that credential with 120 students.”
Dr. MacDonald says there are now about ten microcredentials available at Holland College and much effort is being made to grow that number. Microcredentials are formal certifications that recognize the achievement of one or more specific skills, competencies, or learning outcomes identified by industry sectors to meet specific employer needs. Typically, they are short in duration and offered in a more flexible format. The training may be offered face-to-face, distance, or in a blended learning format. Training may be additional, alternate, or complementary to a traditional formal qualification such as a certificate, diploma, degree, applied degree, or post-graduate certificate.
“By the end of the year, we will have access to 132 microcrendials from across the country as a result of partnerships with other colleges. This provides many training options to people who can’t afford to leave their job for extended periods of time to enter full-time programming. This form of training allows for part-time studies with flexible hours, which can fit much better into the work schedule. This is an opportunity to train people in a more timely and affordable fashion.
“The college is a large employer with over 700 staff. Lifelong learning is completely our focus with both students and our staff in mind.
“We have invested in new software for our staff recruiting efforts, which is working well for us. With the changing times, we had to rethink our teaching and learning process, especially during the restrictions of the pandemic.
“Although virtual learning was already happening at the college, we spent a lot of time and money to adapt further to virtual learning. A big part of this process was updating our staff skill sets and the technology to support this change.
“As a college and an employer, it is easier to work with the people that you have instead of recruiting at a time of labour shortages. Upskilling and retaining is here to stay and we are working to make it much more accessible and flexible for our staff and students.”
Dr. MacDonald says 25 percent of their enrollment is international students. “We have created virtual communities for recruiting and orientation and we have face-to-face programming for those who are on the Island. “We help the local immigrants navigate through their settlement needs, which can be a challenge, especially with housing.
“Employers would benefit by connecting with the college and meeting students to help them be more familiar with the work settings and job opportunities. We have seen a lot of success when it comes to hiring international students when the industries and employers get connected early in the year.”
Dr. Greg Keefe says the partnership between UPEI and Holland College has never been stronger. They are creating more pathways for local students and international students.
“UPEI is unique in that we are focusing heavily on professional programs and trying to address workforce needs by expanding our programs. We have expanded our nursing program. We have a fantastic engineering program, and now we offer a doctorate in psychology. The AVC has been in place for many years, and now we are building a Faculty of Medicine.
“Employers are acknowledging skills like critical thinking, communication, and life-long learning are all very important as students enter the workforce, and that is our focus as well.
“UPEI has about 150 partnerships within various offices. A lot of things are happening with the private sector, colleges, and government. One key partnership is our growing co-op programs. We are seeing growth with some non-traditional co-op streams such as with the Arts in Communication and Culture.
“Lots of experiential learning is taking place for our international students. One example is the Employment Program, which introduces international students to employers and what is like to work in this country.
“Our engineering program is very project-based, with an emphasis on the strong positive effect of partnerships. Participating employers talk about how well students adapt to the workforce while in the program and after graduation. The work they do with industry on team projects throughout the four-year program contributes to that process.
“Students also spend time with employers during their years in programs such as education and nursing. At our Faculty of Medicine, due to open in 2025, clerks and medical residents will work in medical settings across the province. We are working towards fully integrating this program into communities.
“The vision of our medical school is to include continuous education. Our simulation centre will be twice the size of what is available with our partner, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and our number of students will be a quarter of what they have.
“Federal requirements dictate more simulation training. The other reason for this larger space is to have room for further professional training for nurses, paramedics, and others in our existing programs, to offer continuous education for all these professionals going forward in their careers.
“The simulation centre will be open to community groups such as Red Cross and St. John Ambulance. We see this as a holistic approach to continuous education in those professions. The medical school plans to accept 20 PEI resident students a year. We are training residents from PEI, who will train on PEI and stay on PEI. This is a long-term generational solution to the healthcare labour shortages that will take time.”
Dr. Keefe says UPEI helps employers in various industries continue to offer lifelong learning. “The UPEI Office of Continuing Education and Professional Development has advanced a lot over the years, offering microcredentials and short courses. We recently moved this office to the Alumni office on University Avenue, which is much more accessible to the public.
“We offer a diverse array of professional development courses and certificate programs designed to meet the needs of today’s workforce, such as Executive Administration Certificate, Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety, and Certificate in Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being. All are very much relevant to today’s workforce needs.
“A little over 30 percent of our student population is made up of international students from diverse backgrounds. UPEI has about 1,700 international students from over 90 countries. The highest number of students are from Nigeria, India, and China.
“We recognize that there are challenges with these students coming to a completely different culture, and they need support. We are working hard to address settlement issues and ways to support those who decide to stay longer on PEI with help to navigate the permanent residency process.
“Being hired by an employer is a necessary part of this process, so we help them connect with employers. UPEI has a very big part to play when it comes to population growth on PEI, and we work with the partners to address some of the barriers international students face so they will consider staying on PEI longer.”
Tobia Isa talked about what AKA Energy Systems is doing to maintain a strong workforce.
AKA designs, manufactures, and supports power and propulsion assets for marine, offshore oil and gas, and land-based industries. AKA focuses on fuel efficiency and reliability in offshore drilling and in marine and land-based microgrids.
“We work around the world,” says Tobia. “Of our roughly 200 staff who work internationally, 140 live on PEI. One example of our work with international students is having groups of students work on projects over the summer break. We have hired many because of this partnership.
“Being flexible during the pandemic has really been a key driver. If any of us needed to work from home, we just did what we had to do to get the job done.”
Tobia says they understand that each staff member is working towards personal and professional goals. “Our preference is still to have people working together in person as much as possible, but we do our best to accommodate personal goals whenever possible. We try to accommodate schedules and give people a chance to take time away from work when production is lower.
“AKA and our CEO Jason Aspin has a long-standing relationship with Holland College and UPEI. We have done a lot of on-the-job training for post-secondary students from the college’s electrical trades program and UPEI’s Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Design Engineering program.
“Many of them come back to us full-time after graduation for very rewarding, long-lasting employment.
“With the shortage of candidates with senior experience in our field, we had to adapt when it comes to hiring staff who don’t have all the required credentials. In many cases, new staff start with 70 percent of the training required for employment in that position, and then we work with them to complete the rest of the training or certifications required.
“If our new hires are the right match, we will help them fill the skill gaps. Our managers work with each employee to identify their current skills on the skills inventory and help them work through a pathway to make sure they have the support and opportunities to build their skill set.
“We invest in our people and work towards retaining our staff for the long-term. I personally am an example of someone whom the company has invested in to build on my skills. This investment into enhancing my skills when I was fresh out of university and throughout my career has given me a chance to advance within the company and build on my experience. I am very grateful to AKA for this.”
For more about AKA Energy Systems, visit www.aka-group.com