Dr. Sandy MacDonald, President of Holland College, says sharing the story of our career paths is an opportunity to learn from one another. Many people guided and mentored him along his journey, and he was glad to listen.
“The college is set up to offer support to help students navigate their learning and to help students realize their dreams. Campuses and centres across the Island provide Islanders the opportunity to help shape their futures.”
After some reflection on his own career path, he says, “Sometimes our decisions are good ones but sometimes there are failures. It is what you do with those not-so-good experiences that makes the difference.”
It was a challenge for him when he first entered UPEI. “I got kicked out twice. It took me seven years to get a Bachelor of Arts.
“I worked for a year in Fort McMurray fixing sewer lines in the winter, and that experience gave me the nudge to go back to school. I was motivated to enter UPEI again and earned my Bachelor of Education.
“Although I enjoyed history and political studies, I was always interested in how kids performed in school. When I got into education, I was much more interested in the kids who struggled than the ones who did not.”
The turning point in his career came when a professor of education at UPEI, Dr. Edgar MacDonald, helped steer him on the right path. “He understood me, pushed me, and mentored me. I admired my high school teacher, Pearly MacNeill, because he was such a great educator. I ended up being a student teacher for him.”
After completing the BEd program, he taught English in a remote community in northern Manitoba. “It was a place with a lot of violence and alcoholism. I came home and did substitute teaching for a year. From there, I took a degree in Special Education at Memorial University, because I was quite interested in kids who don’t learn as well as others. I came back to PEI and worked for a few years as a high school Special Education teacher.
“One of my professors suggested I go to grad school. I earned my Masters in Educational Psychology at the University of Alberta, and it was a wonderful experience. My thesis focused on the personality development of kids from divorced families, which was a real learning experience.”
When he came back to PEI, he worked for the Unit IV School Board as a Psychologist. “With some help from the province, I was granted a sabbatical to go to McGill University to earn my doctorate, and then came back to work for the school board.
He moved to a psychologist role with the Department of Justice, working at the two adult correctional centres, three youth centres, and the probation office. He did itinerant consulting and psychology work, and then was hired by Holland College, where he worked until 2005.
He was hired as the Superintendant of the PEI School Board, before working for six years as the provincial Deputy Minister of Education. He went on to become Vice President Academic of Applied Research at Holland College, and then became President in 2019.
“My career has been a winding path. Progress is rarely linear – it is usually a few steps forward, sideways, back, and forward again.”
Holland College celebrates 50 years by learning from the community
Dr. MacDonald credits the success of Holland College to the great work of many talented people.
Since January 2019, only three of the 13 most senior positions at Holland College have remained intact. “There have been significant staffing changes in the organization and a cultural change as well.”
Holland College celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019 with a strategic planning process led by Vice President Doug Currie. The theme was #Next50 and included stakeholder facilitation sessions, online surveys, and other conversations to collect suggestions from industry, the general public, students, staff, and faculty.
“From all of the feedback, we will be able to measure our performance against this accountability framework by focusing on three or four major themes.”
Importance of a strong relationship between instructors and students
“The single most important phenomenon for any educational institution is the relationship between instructors and students. What and how students are learning are essential to retention.
“Our attrition rates are extremely low, mainly because of the relationship between our instructors and our students. We get feedback from our students’ experience in the classroom and with their instructors, and then we work to make sure supports are in place.”
Blending college and university
“Parents, educators, and students are beginning to see college as a powerful alternative or add-on to university. Not every student will be successful at university or at college. It is becoming more common for students to graduate from college and go on to university.
“About 40 percent of our student population has some previous university education. Many students who come to the college with a university degree or degrees want to acquire a specific skill set to get into the labour market.
“For example, our Bioscience Technology program works closely with the UPEI science faculty. More and more, you see a blurring of university and college. A lot of students are saying they need a bit of both. Post-secondary educational institutions have had to become much more flexible.”
The college is competency-based. When students demonstrate their skill and ability with a certain competence, they are finished with the program. “More and more institutions are moving in that direction, because people want training specific to the work they hope to do. A whole field of micro credentials is emerging, which offers just enough or just in time learning.
“Given the demographic challenges facing Canada, we need to be more flexible in what we offer to students and how we deliver our content.”
Apprenticeship pilot explores alternatives to the block release model
The college recently started a unique pilot model working with welding and machining apprentices. “The present method of block release means a tradesperson has to leave their place of work for 6-8 weeks to take classroom work at the college.
“During this period, they have to take a pay cut or go on EI, and the employer loses the productivity. Our Red Seal completion rates have suffered as a result, because people cannot afford to leave work.
“With this pilot, apprentices get laptops and are given time off weekly to do the work previously done in the classroom. It is the future of apprenticeship training.
“Most post-secondary institutions now offer blended learning programs where part of the program is delivered online with the remainder face-to-face. There are also now many programs that are completely online. It is important that the prospective student ensures the program in which they are interested in is of high quality and gives them the competencies they need.”
Contract training is a new aspect of the college
“More and more, we are hearing from industry that they need short, focused training. If an industry comes forward with a number of students who want a short course with specific content, we can offer the components of a program.”
Addressing labour and skills shortage
“Growing up, I never believed that PEI would experience a labour and skills shortage. The number of high school graduates is decreasing. Our enrollment numbers have stayed about the same over the last six years, but the makeup has changed dramatically. Now we have 25 percent international students. However, we still have some challenges filling certain programs, such as the trades areas, despite job opportunities.
“We’re also a bit constrained, as our competency-based approach means small class sizes, which are great for our students but a challenge financially.”
In the last six years, about 32,000 people retired from their jobs in Atlantic Canada, with another 292,000 expected in the next 10 years.
“To address this, we are collaborating with our partners like never before. Over the next five years there will be a broader and deeper integration of the post-secondary system, industry, and government support.”
Dr. MacDonald is a member of the Future Skills Council, established by the federal government in 2019. “The 15 council members from across the country will give advice to the federal government on how to best employ the billions of dollars we spend each year on training.
“What worries all of us is keeping the economy of Canada humming along in the face of persistent skill and labour shortages. Educational institutions, government supports, and industry are not yet fully integrated in such a way as to be able to minimize the impact of labour and skills shortages.“The next five years are key to Canada’s development, and institutions like ours have to do more with government support to get closer to industry, and industry also has to do more.”
Developing the hard-to-teach skills
“Experiential learning is our bread and butter at the college and we need to put more emphasis on this area. Some of the soft skills such as leadership and working with others are difficult to quantify, to teach, or to assess but they may be best mastered through work-integrated learning. Essential and employability skills will only grow in importance.
“It is a lot easier to teach those skills on the job than in a classroom. That is why we need a strong relationship between industry and college and supports from the provincial and federal government. I think the next five years will see a significant evolution in this relationship.”
Overarching direction for the college
“We are becoming more accessible and more flexible. For example, students may be able to take competencies from different programs and put together packages for short courses and micro credentials.
“We want to work more closely with industry to make a transition to a new economy marked by demographic challenges and technological advances.
“We will be maximizing our relationships with junior high and high school students, and even elementary schools. The expansion of our Transitions program for high school students will continue.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a significant increase over the past several years in students suffering from mental health challenges, particularly anxiety. The world seems more complex with each passing day, and a number are finding it difficult to cope.
“Many of our programs are quite challenging and require a great deal of time and effort to be successful. We work very hard to support our students, but there are always challenges.
“Our students come to us to acquire the skills and competencies to find employment. That is the college’s most important objective, and while we’ve been quite successful in the past, we’re always trying to improve.”
How to start your college education
“The first step is to call the registrar’s office to ask for information. Recruiters are here to answer questions. We have tremendously committed staff. I can surely say there is no such thing as falling through the cracks at Holland College. We help people make their career dreams come true.”
To contact Dr. Sandy MacDonald, email [email protected].
For more information about entering Holland College, call 902-629-4217 or 1-800-446-5265.