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Pablo Vargas, Dean of Continuing Studies at Langara College, on the school’s Vancouver campus on Oct. 18.Alia Youssef/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s colleges and institutions are seeing the fallout from nearly two years of pandemic angst, in the form of an increase in mature students seeking either new skills for jobs they still love, or new jobs altogether.

“The pandemic gave people an opportunity to really rethink who they are and what it is that’s important to them, as far as their careers are concerned,” says Gina Antonacci, senior vice-president of academic at Humber College in Toronto.

Humber has seen a marked rise in the number of mature students, which includes students 25 and up who have been in the work force.

In 2019, this cohort represented 23 per cent of new enrolments; this year, it’s 29 per cent. “We are definitely seeing an increase in mature student activity,” she says.

Not surprisingly, those students are concentrated in the college’s graduate certificate programs, or “university finishing school,” as it’s called at Humber. Many come with degrees from universities and are now seeking specific skills to boost their career prospects.

There has also been a jump in the college’s continuous professional learning courses, she says. For example, Humber’s Centre of Entrepreneurship saw a huge spike in enrolment.

“We have seen these new enrolments in folks over the age of 25, which to me says … they are looking at renewing their career path,” says Ms. Antonacci.

Interest in health care-related programs, in particular, has increased. The college has 70 new practical nursing students this fall and increased its bachelor of science nursing cohort by 40. The Ontario government invested in fast-tracked personal support workers’ programs for long-term care employment and Humber has seen a spike in enrolment for their accelerated six-month program.

“What colleges do is we respond to local needs, labour needs, employment needs. And, of course, we all saw during COVID, that there was a tremendous need for front-line workers in health care,” Ms. Antonacci says.

It is the role of colleges and institutions to be flexible enough to quickly adapt like that, says Denise Amyot, president and chief executive officer of College and Institutes Canada.

For example, Ms. Amyot says Centennial College in Toronto reported a 41-per-cent increase in applications to its nursing programs, a 57-per-cent increase in applications to its pharmacy technician program, as well as a 62-per-cent hike in applicants to its medical laboratory technician program.

Colleges prioritize providing flexible learning options for mid-career and mature students, she says.

“Older learners often have other obligations, whether it’s work or family.”

Most college students have a degree or career already, she says. They enroll with specific goals and seek flexibility in scheduling.

There are 139 member colleges across the country, many with multiple locations, and 95 per cent of Canadians live within 50 kilometres of a college campus, adds Ms. Amyot.

Most colleges also offer prior learning assessment, which means work experience and previous learning are assessed and counted toward educational goals. Students do not have to sit through redundant courses just for credits.

“It helps you to achieve your goals faster, because you can add the recognition of the knowledge and the skills that you already have,” she says.

Colleges offer an array of programs, from single-day accreditations to part-time studies, diplomas, certificates and up to four-year degrees.

There is a growing interest in particular from students and employers alike in micro-credentials – abbreviated and focused programs for specific certifications, such as project cost management, digital transformation, or introductory studies in mass timber construction. There are thousands of such micro-credential programs at colleges across the country now, she says.

“It’s quite popular with the students, especially with the people who already have skills, or who want to upskill,” Ms. Amyot says. “I love it, because it means that we are beginning to see this culture of lifelong learning, because workers realize that either they need to specialize, or they need to adjust their skill set more than once over the course of their career.”

Many colleges are reporting a bump in mature students this year, she says. For example, domestic enrolment is up 10 per cent this year at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, especially in part-time studies.

“Sometimes when you stop, you realize, maybe I don’t want to do that for the rest of my life. Maybe it’s an opportunity to try something I always wanted to do,” she says. “Also, people are realizing that if you want to be competitive in this labour market, you need to up your game in order to make sure you remain on the leading edge.”

At Langara College in Vancouver, the pandemic has caused a shift in the average age of mature students coming back to school, says Pablo Vargas, dean of continuing studies.

A few years ago, mature students were coming back at the age of 50; now, the average age is 30.

“Part of that has to do with people going through three to five career changes in their life, whereas before it was the one career and they would stick to that,” he says.

As the pandemic continued, there was a marked increase in interest in courses specific to industries that have been in transition, such as medical office administrator, advanced project management and digital animation.

There was also interest in courses clearly linked to career changes, he said, such as real estate and project management.

People have had the time to invest in areas of interest or career skills, Mr. Vargas says.

“Students saw an opportunity to branch out, whether it was because of people losing jobs, or realizing that life was a little short and there was some permission to explore,” he adds.

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