05/04/2016 04:24 EDT | Updated 05/05/2017 05:12 EDT

Never Stop Learning: Continuing Education Is More Important Than Ever

Business people sitting in lecture hall with laptop
Robert Nicholas via Getty Images
Business people sitting in lecture hall with laptop

Canadians are well educated -- of that there's no question. More than half (53 per cent) of Canadian adults between the ages of 25 and 64 have completed post-secondary education. That puts us ahead of all other Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, which have an average completion rate of just 32 per cent. But do we have the skills we need?

Millennials are chronically underemployed, with an estimated one in three taking low-skilled jobs that don't take advantage of their education. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers are being nudged towards early retirement in favour of younger workers with more up-to-date skills. There is a two-pronged solution: education targeted to the needs of today's and tomorrow's employers and a commitment from young and old to never stop learning.

Let's look at the Millennials first. Four years after graduating with a BA, Kat Go has already changed career directions once. She left teachers' college early this year to pursue a fast-track public relations program at The Chang School. It's condensed and demanding -- basically, PR boot camp -- but at the end of three months, she'll be ready to enter the workforce.

Retraining is an essential bridge to the next opportunity.

Kat is getting an early start towards Forbes' expectation that the Millennial generation will average 13 job changes. In fact, she says, "I kept repeating that to myself as a mantra: This is normal! Everyone's doing it! Thirteen jobs!" A decade ago, when she was in grade 10 exploring potential career paths, PR didn't look promising -- but now, with the rise of social media, it's full of potential. Like many Millennials, Kat has found that retraining is an essential bridge to the next opportunity.

This generation needs to acquire in-demand skills -- and fast. They need a certificate that proves they have the specialized skills employers need. They need to move up so they can move out. After all, 42 per cent of 20- to 29-year-olds in the 2011 Census lived with their parents, up from 32 per cent in 2001.

Boomers aren't home free either. They've discovered, as many companies cut back and restructure, that experience doesn't always translate into job security. They're also facing the prospect of a very long retirement -- thanks to the miracles of modern medicine and longer life expectancies -- and, frequently, too little in savings to finance all those years.

Many Boomers are choosing to stay in their jobs longer -- and because they're a big generation, they're having a big impact on national numbers. Over the last 10 years, Canada has seen a 140 per cent increase in the number of workers over age 65, and the percentage of Canadians over age 65 who either have jobs or are looking for jobs has almost doubled, to nearly 14 per cent. Of course, those who work past age 65 have to keep up with skills required by ever-evolving workplaces.

In addition, a 2012 survey found that more than half of pre-retirement Boomers (54 per cent) either have started or are thinking about starting a small business. Two-thirds of those who are considering their entrepreneurial options said the business wouldn't match what they're currently doing for a living. They'll need the same educational bridge to opportunity as the Millennials.

And, like the Millennials, Boomers I've spoken with are looking for program flexibility and efficiency. They want to learn on their own terms and they don't want to spend a lot of time getting the skills they need. Distance education and modular, customizable programs such as our Experiential Learning Exchange (ELX) are becoming increasingly popular. ELX partners each student with a coach to learn a specific skill, with a 12- to 15-hour commitment including about four hours of in-person or over-the-phone coaching. Because learners set the pace, it works well for busy people at every career stage.

There's one other group of learners I'd like to mention -- those who don't want learning to end at retirement. Retirees who have moved fully out of the workforce have vastly different educational goals, of course. They're not looking to become more employable. Instead, they want to follow their passions and acquire new skills. They want to find people who share their interests and stay connected with a community of lifelong learners. And they want to find creative opportunities to share their talents.

I've seen retirees get up on stage for the first time to perform in a play. I've seen others become caring clowns who visit long-term care facilities to bring smiles to the faces of the residents. In retirement, there's no question that new challenges keep bodies active and minds sharp. That's a worthy goal in and of itself.

I live by the phrase "Never stop learning," because continuing education brings both practical skills and the joy of discovering something new about the world and yourself. If you're a Millennial, it can help you overcome mal-employment and accelerate your career. If you're a Boomer, it can set you up for success as a business owner and a prosperous retirement. And if you're a retiree, it can provide intellectual and artistic fulfillment, as well as camaraderie. Continuing education has something to offer to all generations.