Research summary: Understanding adult learners in employment transitions

From: ESDC Innovation Lab, Employment and Social Development Canada

Official title: Mapping the adult learner landscape

Authors of report: ESDC Innovation Lab

Why this study

Trends in the Canadian labour market require Canadians to reskill and upskill at an increasingly fast pace. Mothers caring for young children, racialized persons, Indigenous Peoples, and persons with disabilities, as well as those who have less formal education or are older, are more likely to experience barriers to training.

The Mapping the Adult Learner Landscape project aims to better understand the interests and needs of Canadians aged 30 to 50, who are experiencing employment transition, to identify what might better support them to access learning and training.

What we did

Through semi-structured interviews and a focus group, we heard from 20 adult learners across Canada. Participants lived in rural and urban areas and had varying levels of education and income. They also included immigrants, racialized persons, caregivers, and persons with disabilities.

We also hosted four workshops and connected with over 65 stakeholders from federal, provincial, and territorial governments and community organizations. Additionally, we completed a literature review of grey and academic sources with international, national, and regional scopes to understand previous findings on adult learning support and needs.

We primarily used design methodologies, which are tools to identify the needs of individuals likely to be affected in a policy area, to analyse, summarize and present insights. We developed journey maps, stakeholder maps and other design products.

What we found

Adult learners are a diverse group of people with distinct backgrounds and motivations. Career changes and major life events, whether personal or global, often spark a desire for learning.

Adult learners do not have a clear pathway to access adult learning opportunities, which come in different formats and follow different structures.

Learners who were part of our study tended to have different experiences based in part on their existing educational attainment. Those with lower levels of educational attainment were more likely to find out about learning and training opportunities through personal support networks, and to rely on community support and their local adult learning centers. They were more likely to work in lower paid jobs and had less money and time off for learning.

Participants in our study with higher levels of educational attainment were more likely to do online research to find out about learning and training opportunities, and were more reluctant to seek help, believing that they should be able to figure out next steps on their own. They also worried about finances to some degree, particularly those who were self-employed or had previous education debts.

In addition to the challenge of overcoming financial limitations, there were also other common challenges that affected learners regardless of their backgrounds and experiences, including lower levels of confidence, and mental health and disability barriers.

What it means

We looked for opportunities to better support adult learners and found that many require support not just during their studies, but also well in advance of their learning, to help free up their capacity to learn.  Participants told us that many factors can enable learning journeys, including assistance with childcare and transportation, and programs that foster personal development with a focus on mental health. Other areas of desired assistance included opportunities for non-traditional or informal learning, as well as support for building digital literacy and accessing language or literacy training.

Additional support to overcome financial limitations is also important, particularly to those who are self-employed, new immigrants, have accessibility needs, or have debts.

Delivering more programing through venues such as adult learning centers or online platforms can also grow participation, and so can ensuring that people are aware of the resources available to them.

Contact us

ESDC Innovation Lab, Strategic and Service Policy Branch

To request a full copy of the report, please contact the ESDC Innovation Lab.


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