These diplomas are for students with families, mortgages and hectic schedules

The number of mature students on campus is rapidly rising—and schools are catering to experienced freshmen

In 2011, almost 30 years old and back home from his second mission to Afghanistan, Canadian Forces veteran Paul Guilmain was unsure how to plot his next career as a civilian.

“There aren’t too many jobs that require a light armoured vehicle commander,” says Guilmain, a high school graduate who served with the Princess Patricia Light Infantry and is now a reservist with the Royal Westminster Regiment in New Westminster, B.C. “The infantry teaches you some fantastic management and leadership skills. But I am not a qualified accountant and I don’t practise law.”

By chance, he read about a new veterans-focused career transition program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), a pioneering institution in recognizing work and life experiences, not just past academic credentials, and offering pathways to learning based on a broader set of qualifications. In 2013, the former master corporal earned an undergraduate business degree from BCIT. It took 2½ years, about half the time for an incoming high school student. In his final full-time semester, he landed a job with the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, where he now is a manager in the high-risk claims department.

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Guilmain’s education experience is one example of how colleges are rethinking how to cater to those seeking second careers in their 30s, 40s or older. Some individuals have had their lives upended by labour market disruptions while others need more credentials to progress on the job. Either way, colleges are introducing new diplomas, degrees and other credentials. They’re often offered on an accelerated timetable and aimed at a cohort with families, mortgages and time constraints who demand flexibility on when, how and what they learn.

Tapping the mature student market is “crucial,” says Denise Amyot, president of Colleges and Institutes Canada. Those aged 30 or above represented almost one in five college graduates in 2015.“If they don’t contribute to the economy, it is not good for the country, their community or them,” she says. “It is very important for us that we meet them where they are.”

That philosophy embodies BCIT’s “advanced placement and prior learning” assessment model, initially developed in 2008 for returning veterans but later adapted for mid-career first responders, firefighters and civilians. The Legion Military Skills Conversion Program, developed by the college’s SITE Centre, proved so popular it now is available at 18 Canadian colleges. BCIT’s civilian version attracted 175 applicants in 2017, up from three in 2012.

When BCIT developed its assessment tool for veterans, SITE director Kevin Wainwright says, “We realized that these guys had a lot of skills and experience that did not translate into the traditional post-secondary market.” Working with the military, BCIT mapped leadership and other high-quality training courses taken by soldiers against learning outcomes identified by the college.

Recognizing Guilmain’s past military training, BCIT enrolled him directly into the second year of a two-year business diploma. He then added another year for a bachelor of business administration, graduating “with distinction.”

Until BCIT, Guilmain thought he had lost his chance at post-secondary education. “I’m not 18 anymore and the idea of going to school for four years and not being paid was a bit daunting,” he says.

Assessing past accomplishments opens academic doors to veterans and civilians, says Wainwright. “It’s about looking at the hidden skills people have that weren’t being measured because they aren’t credentialized.” With time being of the essence for older students, Wainwright says the BCIT model asks: “How do we get you in and out and get you the education you want in a timely manner?”

When automation or other disruptions cause a job loss, college is seen as one route to another career—often aided by provincial tuition subsidies. But sorting out programs, course selections and financial aid can overwhelm mature learners who have never set foot on campus.

“It’s very difficult for older individuals to come back to school,” says Robyn Heaton, dean of the faculty of arts, media and design at Ottawa’s Algonquin College. She is also responsible for the college’s “experienced worker” centre that reported a 15 per cent rise in applicants aged 31 to 50 in the past two years. “It’s not that they can’t be good students, but they need help to navigate through all of this.”

The college counts on career counsellors to advise incoming adult students but may add a “concierge desk” as an extra navigation tool for older learners. “We are afraid they are coming in and getting confused and we don’t want to lose them,” she says.

In 2015, Joan Bailey found herself at a crossroads. Now nearing 50, the Ottawa single mother of two teenagers had joined a financial institution directly out of high school. Two decades later, she lost her job in a corporate downsizing.

After being laid off from a series of contract jobs, and at her daughter’s suggestion, Bailey initially considered an event-planning program at Algonquin. Her career counsellor discovered Bailey’s real desire was to become a plumber but, with no program then available, urged her to pursue a two-year diploma in heating, refrigeration and air conditioning. Halfway through the diploma, Bailey joined a new one-year certificate in plumbing techniques, earning top marks in both programs and graduating in June 2018.

“Algonquin College has given me the tools and now I just need to use them,” says Bailey, who has applied for an apprenticeship to earn her plumber’s licence.

For demographic reasons, “non-direct” students like Bailey are increasingly valuable to colleges. Algonquin estimates its traditional cohort of 15 to 24-year-old “direct” entry students will remain flat or decline over the next decade compared to a modest rise of one per cent in the number of career-focused learners aged 25 to 44.

“We see there is a demand from that non-direct [adult learner] market because individuals are looking to increase their skills,” says Patrick Devey, dean of continuing education and online learning at Algonquin. “We are looking to cater our products more and more to this audience so that we have ways for them to do short bursts of learning, including micro-credentials”—short courses lasting days or weeks, not months.

He says the college is considering multiple intakes, possibly monthly, for high-demand courses delivered online—an increasingly popular learning mode for working adults. In 2017-18, online course registrations in continuing education at Algonquin rose to 13,536, up 20 per cent over 2015-16.

Demographic trends also loom large in New Brunswick, with an aging population and migration from rural to urban centres. Among those aged 35 to 64, 140,000 individuals have a high school education or less, says Mary Butler, vice-president academic development at New Brunswick Community College (NBCC).

That under-educated cohort represents a “significant” opportunity for NBCC, since the less educated tend not to join the labour force—“more than twice that of those with a post-secondary education,” says Butler. “So we know the value in terms of economic and social development if we can include more of those learners in obtaining a post-secondary education.”

NBCC has set a target to add 3,200 students (of all ages) by 2022, through full-time studies, apprenticeships and specialized training that targets rural and remote learners.

“We need to look at new models for how we reach people,” says Butler, with programs in high-demand sectors, such as long-term care providers, delivered in-person and online. For example, a personal support worker can study online at the local library and come to campus for labs.

Modular learning is also an option for working adults unable to go to class full-time.

This fall, NBCC introduces a one-year advanced diploma in cybersecurity—a hot field and one with almost 4,000 vacancies in the province in 2016, according to the college. The program has two versions—one full-time and the other part-time for working professionals only looking to upgrade their credentials.

Butler likens the model to assembling Lego blocks. “It becomes a system into which you can build and add on to your learning throughout your career,” she says.

That focus on flexibility defines college efforts to woo adult learners. Two years ago, Seneca College’s continuing education faculty offered some courses at 7 a.m. instead of in the traditional three-hour evening time slot. Students spent an hour and a half in the morning class, completing the other half of the course online. “It has been quite successful for people who don’t have the ability to spend three hours at night with us,” says Jeff McCarthy, dean of continuing education.

Seneca instructor Brian Lejnieks, who has taught a morning business course, replicated the blending learning format for a Saturday morning class. He recently included some virtual classes, connecting with students through an online chat window. One unexpected bonus is increased student participation by those who would not speak up in a regular class.

“I view students as our customers and we want them to recommend us and come back,” says Lejnieks. “We want them to be happy and we need to find new ways of doing it.”

With more than 60,000 continuing education course registrations a year, the largest in Ontario, Seneca plans to further diversify its offerings with more accelerated learning and micro-credentials than before.

In spring 2018, Seneca announced an agreement with IBM for a Skills Academy Hub, the first in Ontario, to deliver technical certification programs on an accelerated timetable. Students have 24-7 access to a virtual, hands-on learning lab and earn IBM digital “badges” on a particular topic.

“Many of the students who come to us may not want a whole program,” says McCarthy. “They may just want pieces of it to upskill [in areas] that are relevant to them.”

Depending on personal circumstances, older workers may choose full-time, part-time or a combination of each.

At 48, without a high school diploma, Craig Atkins had multiple careers under his belt—construction industry, hot-air ballooning and building superintendent—when he says he had “an epiphany” about the need to upgrade his education.

In 2011, after his building underwent a heating and cooling retrofit, Atkins saw an opportunity for a challenging career and enrolled full-time at Seneca for a diploma in building-systems engineering. “I wanted to step up my game and not just be a superintendent.” After graduation, he returned to Seneca in 2015 for job-relevant certificates, this time studying online at local public libraries.

“The technical expertise I got from the diploma and certificates fundamentally opened doors to [job] interviews and opened doors to learning the new technology that was coming on the market,” says Atkins. Now a maintenance planner for an energy-processing and power-generation company in Newmarket, Ont., he estimates his salary is three times higher than when he worked in construction.

For now, few expect a slowdown in adult demand for college credentials. In Alberta, Lethbridge College notched an 11.2 per cent increase in students aged 35 to 55 over the past five years compared to growth of only 0.8 per cent for those aged 18 to 24.

“The current labour market is likely driving it,” says Nancy Russell, manager of student engagement and retention at Lethbridge, citing energy sector layoffs. “People with 10-plus years of experience find themselves without work or credentials and needing to redirect their careers.” In response, Lethbridge includes programs that blend in-class and online delivery and recognize prior learning. Students can pay a $15 fee for an assessment of their suitability for promising careers.

Still, returning to school carries no guarantees. Mark Kokas, 42, was a journeyman electrician in Leduc, the site of Alberta’s first oil discovery, when he was laid off in the 2016 energy downturn. “When I googled for jobs, they all seemed to point to wind turbines,” he says. “I thought this would be a win-win situation to go into renewables.”

He enrolled at Lethbridge College because its eight-month diploma for wind turbine technicians was a shorter course than those at other colleges. He graduated last December, but has yet to land a job in his new field.

“I am not the success story that everyone was thinking, but I am optimistic,” says Kokas. He has “no regrets” about his career change. “In the school itself, there was a whole bunch of stuff that made me a better craftsman.”

Meanwhile, five years after graduating from BCIT, Paul Guilmain reflects on his pursuit of a college education. “I am extremely thankful,” he says. “It is something I always wanted.”


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