A Community College: Different Programs, Different Prospects

May 8, 2018   |   Ontario, PEW Team Research

By Laura Servage

I completed my dissertation in partnership with an Alberta community college. Like most all community colleges, this institution was an important centre for credentialing in short courses and diplomas: the kinds of programs that could get people in to the workforce quickly, and match skills to high-needs occupational areas. The college relied on government funding for a great deal of its operating budget: Alberta Works clients on social assistance were funded to complete programs of study in the hopes that this would get them “off the dole,” so to speak, and employed to a level of self-sufficiency. The program is not unlike what is offered by Ontario Works.

The students who participated in my study were pursuing Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) diplomas. The program was demanding and intensive, but graduates had a reasonable expectation of good paying work in health care. Most all I interviewed were interested in becoming nurses or nurse practitioners in the long run, and at the time of study, some pathways were in place to help LPN graduates to pursue these goals.

The college also offered shorter programs. In four to twelve months, students might complete credentials to become fork lift operators, day home providers, or health care aides. The provincial government was happy to just to get people working, and these less-skilled jobs might be appropriate for people — recent immigrants or example — who lacked the education and English language skills to tackle longer and more complex learning pathways.

Yet these short programs were missing something very important: the prospect of progress and growth that was available to the LPN students I was working with. Students were discouraged from completing any courses outside of those absolutely required to get them in to the workforce as quickly a possible, which meant that many could not even advance toward a high school diploma so long as they were on Alberta Works funding. Once obtaining credentials or certification, most could expect to work in jobs that would afford little future learning — credentialed or otherwise.

From the perspective of policy makers, in the college I worked with, LPNs with jobs and childcare providers with jobs were both success stories if they resulted in fewer people receiving public assistance. The college tallies its completion rates and employment rates. Numbers are reported. Fiscal year ends are closed, and new academic years begin. But what of our graduate x-ray technicians, childcare providers and medical receptionists? Are their jobs stable? Are they fulfilling? Will they have future opportunities to gain new knowledge and skills? Will their experience in their present jobs be valued by future employers?
<h4><strong>Education With Prospects for the Future</strong></h4>
There is no doubt that short courses offered by community colleges fulfill important roles, both in terms of individual development and meeting immediate labour market needs. However, the limited prospects for future growth in such occupations highlights many of the problems that arise when work and learning are constructed by policy makers entirely in economic terms — as something divorced from people’s community lives, interests and aspirations.

The capabilities approach to education calls for a more expansive understanding of education and work. It is a vision that cannot be achieved through market mechanisms alone. Presently, employability programs — particularly those aligned with so-called “welfare-to-work” schemes — perform a short-term and arguably short-sighted <em>matching</em> function: they develop skills in potential workers and match workers to jobs that need to be filled. The outcome is one with a good likelihood of employing people, but also of keeping them trapped in jobs without opportunities for growth (Keep &amp; James, 2012).
<h4><strong>Coordinating Work and Learning</strong></h4>
Instead of a matching function, such programs need to move toward a coordinating function that builds and relies upon community partnerships. Because of their strong geographical roots and vocational focus, community colleges are ideally suited to perform this function (Wheelahan, 2016). Comparing Ontario’s VET-oriented colleges to Australia’s TAFEs, Wheelahan argues that Ontario’s system is superior because it relies more upon “high trust” relationships among employers, workers’ organizations, and educational institutions. Strong, flexible local partnerships make it more likely that VET can be developed within a capabilities framework rather than the narrow, short-term focus on skills engendered by human capital theory.

A similar vision for strong collaboration is articulated in the 2016 report to the Ontario Premier, <em>Building the Workforce of Tomorrow</em>. Interestingly, the panel states that, rather than inquiry toward a “highly skilled workforce,” it would be “more useful for the province to focus on the workforce as a whole.” (p. 10) The distinction drawn here is not elaborated and is thus somewhat unclear. It may be interpreted as aiming for greater inclusion of workers and labour market positions at the lower end of the skills sector in policy visioning and policy development.

The model of collaboration promoted in the report is similar to the partnership model that Wheelahan and Moodie have promoted within the capabilities framework. Instead of relying on markets that can buffet disadvantaged workers about in the “low pay no pay cycle,” (Essential Skills Ontario, 2012) social partnerships are intentional efforts among stakeholders to coordinate education, training and paid employment. Ideally such efforts yield vocational streams — overlapping occupations and occupational sectors that draw on like or similar capabilities (Wheelahan, Yu &amp; Buchanan, 2015). The goal of developing vocational streams is to strengthen both horizontal and vertical mobility in ways that benefit workers and employers alike.
<h4><strong>Keeping the Full Spectrum in Mind</strong></h4>
The size and visibility of Ontario’s higher education sector makes it easy to focus on the kinds of pathways that move people diplomas to degrees — from mid-skill credentials to applied or academic degrees with subsequent potential for graduate skills. Indeed, PEW’s <a href=”http://https:/www.oise.utoronto.ca/pew/current-projects1/”>present SSHRC project</a> is focused very much in this area.

However, it is also important to recognize the kinds of pathways work that needs to happen at the lower end of the skills spectrum. Present PEW initiatives to map pathways for Canada’s engineers and nurses are revealing some of the challenges of developing career ladders and vocational streams that help people with short qualifications to move into academic and applied academic programs. These challenges must be addressed if a fully inclusive model of post-secondary pathways is to become a reality.


Conway, S. (2016). <em>Building the workforce of tomorrow</em>. Report from the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel. Retrieved from <a href=”https://files.ontario.ca/hsw_rev_engaoda_webfinal_july6.pdf”>https://files.ontario.ca/hsw_rev_engaoda_webfinal_july6.pdf</a>

Essential Skills Ontario (2012). <em>From better skills to better work</em>. Toronto ON: Author.

Keep, E., &amp; James, S. (2012). A Bermuda triangle of policy? “Bad jobs”, skills policy and incentives to learn at the bottom end of the labour market. <em>Journal of Education Policy, 27</em>(2), 211–230. <a href=”https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2011.595510″>https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2011.595510</a>

Wheelahan, L. (2016). <em>Vocational education in crisis: Why we need a new social settlement</em>. Centre of the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education. OISE, University of Toronto.

Wheelahan, L., Buchanan, J., &amp; Yu, S. (2015). <i>Linking qualifications and the labour market through capabilities and vocational streams. Synthesis report</i>. National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER). Adelaide. Retrieved from https://www.ncver.edu.au/__data/assets/file/0018/9261/linking-quals-and-labour-market.pdf