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Janet Lane is the director of the Human Capital Centre at the Canada West Foundation

The secret is out. While we’ve known that Tuesday’s federal budget is being billed as a skills budget, we can now expect it will include a specific measure to help older workers upgrade their skills or train for new jobs. This is a really good move by the federal government and may have been inspired by Singapore’s Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs). There is a large and growing need for people in the Canadian work force to improve their skills to maintain employment and quality of life. Skills accounts will give working-aged adults financial assistance while they upgrade their skills or learn completely new ones.

But there’s a lot to consider before “going back to school,” for a whole program or for only a short course.

First, there’s the cost. An ILA should provide financial support for tuition and lost income. According to reports, it looks like Finance Minister Bill Morneau is looking at a variety of ways to cover the costs involved.

But the other question people may ask is, “Will my investment of time and money actually pay off?”

The answer will vary for everyone, but depends on two things: choosing the right skills to learn and finding the most effective and efficient way to learn them.

Unfortunately, there is no good way for people in Canada to determine either of those things. For ILAs to make the impact the government is aiming for, Canadians need better tools to help them make choices about what and how to learn.

Fortunately, tools based on competencies that can help make those good choices do exist elsewhere.

Competencies are the skills, knowledge and attributes required to do different tasks of a job. Competency profiles can be built for each job in the economy. Individuals can build their own competency profiles – what they can do and the level at which they can do it, from novice to expert. We can do a better job of matching people with jobs when we use what needs to be done – and who can do it – instead of credentials, years of experience and outdated job descriptions.

Competency frameworks include the competency profiles of the jobs in the economy – from local to pan-Canadian. They also show the level of competence required. An individual can see the learning pathway they would need to take to move from one job to another. They would be able to pinpoint the competencies they need to build from scratch, and those for which they just need to increase their level of competence. Best of all, because competencies use a common language, frameworks show how the skills applied in one sector are valuable in other sectors.

A competency framework that is updated regularly, with real-time labour market data, would show the competencies that are becoming less important – and those that are becoming more so. Trends for learning needs would become visible. Education and training providers would have early warning of what they need to get ready to teach.

To unleash the power of ILAs, people need to know what skills and competencies they need to build, and to what level, to maintain their jobs or move between jobs. The next question is where to access learning that meets their needs in the most effective and efficient way possible.

Ensuring that every course is validly linked to at least one competency in the framework would be the final piece in the puzzle.

As yet, there is no way to link most of the programs and courses offered by public and private training providers to specific competencies required by employers. Also, there is no way to ensure that the providers validate the competencies of those who complete a course so that individuals and employers can be sure they actually have built that competency.

Singapore has already done this – every government accredited course is linked to the competencies in the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications framework. Its SkillsFuture learning accounts can be applied to any of these courses.

Imagine being able to afford to learn new skills and to know that what you were learning was going to make it easier to stay employed – either in a job that was changing or in a new job that was just being created. That’s the ultimate goal of an Individual Learning Account – for both the individuals and the government funding them. Mr. Morneau’s next move should be funding for the development of a pan-Canadian competency framework. Let’s not add to the numbers of broken-hearted people who took training only to find themselves no better off.

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