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Ottawa-based Macadamian Technologies Inc. cannot match its larger competitors’ offers of the highest salaries, generous childcare subsidies – or an indoor go-kart track, for that matter.

But the mid-sized company has hit on a benefit that resonates with employees: continuous education delivered through online “microcourses” that give them the knowledge they need, when they need it, to stay on top of emerging business challenges and opportunities.

“It’s very on-demand [in terms of timing], and the cool thing … is that it’s true learning. For example, you are on a project and need to learn a concept. You go and do the material and apply it immediately,” says Macadamian’s chief operating officer Dinesh Kandanchatha, who supplemented his MBA degree and entrepreneurial experience with a three-part course on data science this past summer. He said the course equipped him to ask more insightful questions going into the annual budgeting process.

Macadamian, a software design and development firm in the health-care field, spends $4,000 for each employee a year for these flexible education and development options offered through LinkedIn and online learning platform Udemy Inc. The company also offers in-house courses. There has been a payoff in terms of recruitment and retention – and an increase in the number of former employees who return after working elsewhere. “We even have a name for them: Boomerangs. I’m one myself,” Mr. Kandanchatha said in an interview.

A recent report published by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, a provincial government agency, said the unpredictability of today’s labour market underscores the need for more flexible, short-term adult education programs at colleges and universities for employees affected by job loss or changing skill needs. Traditional postsecondary education programs set the foundation, but that’s no longer enough. “We cannot predict which companies will thrive and which will fail, whose jobs are at risk and whose are not. Nor can we predict which new companies and industries will emerge,” wrote the authors of the HEQCO report on life-long learning.

Employers, also, "could take more responsibility for training their workers" in this era of technological disruption and opportunity, Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz said in a speech to the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council in the fall of 2018. "Companies are best placed to know what skills they are looking for in employees [and] schools can adapt their curricula only so often," Mr. Poloz said. "Indeed, given the pace of change we are facing, a company that is willing to take smart graduates and train them in-house will establish an extra competitive edge in their marketplace."

Some Canadian companies, such as Macadamian and Toronto-based Points International Ltd., a customer loyalty platform, already invest heavily in growing their own talent. Points pays up to $5,000 a year in tuition subsidies, and currently has employees enrolled in MBA and executive MBA programs. The company recently purchased an online learning system for finance team members pursuing certification as chartered professional accountants.

“Leaders and employees work collaboratively to determine how and where to focus their training strategy … based on the needs of the team and the individual,” said Inez Murdoch, chief people officer at Points. In addition to the formal education supports, there are lunch-and-learn sessions, off-site events and “tons of opportunities to learn on the job,” Ms. Murdoch said.

The company's quarterly "hackathon," for instance, gives employees a forum to be inventive in addressing business issues they have observed. Teams pitch their ideas and work in groups, "coding, designing and testing in order to create a functional and relevant solution to a loyalty problem."

Flexibility and creativity is key to the success of Macadamian's education and development program, Mr. Kandanchatha said. "If you are a junior software developer and you want to become an intermediate developer, we set up a learning pathway for that," he said.

But employees are not restricted to courses in their particular fields of expertise. If a human resources manager wants to learn coding or a software engineer wants to study business, all the better. “It gives you greater context … and the [online] material is presented in bite-sized chunks so you can still do your day job while trying to develop this new competency or skill.” Some opt for project management or communications courses. One person wanted to study photography. Macadamian’s attitude is “go do it,” Mr. Kandanchatha said.

“As long as you are continually learning, you are going to bring that discovering mindset to work and that’s going to translate into value for the business.”

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