Saskatchewan Polytechnic delivers Virtual Learning Strategist program across Canada for apprentices with disabilities

June 3, 2021 – Saskatchewan Polytechnic, in collaboration with the Government of New Brunswick’s Apprenticeship and Occupational Certification of Adult Learning and Employment at the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour, is providing the Virtual Learning Strategist (VLS) program for electrical apprentices with disabilities. This program will be delivered across Canada and is funded by the Employment and Social Development Canada’s (ESDC) Union Training Innovation Program (UTIP).

The VLS program falls under the Online Apprentice Support Initiatives for Success (OASIS) umbrella with the National Electrical Trade Council (NETCO). This is an existing program that is customized for the OASIS project. Using an innovative approach, NETCO addresses multiple barriers that limit apprenticeship outcomes by pioneering a forward-looking approach to training.

According to BuildForce Canada’s construction sector forecast for 2015-2024, the expected retirements of 250,000 skilled tradespeople will lead to skilled labour challenges at unprecedented levels. To fill the vacancies left by retiring baby boomers and meet the demands of anticipated growth, the industry needs to recruit and train new workers. The VLS program can play a role in increasing the much-needed number of tradespeople, particularly electrical apprentices, for Canada.

“Saskatchewan Polytechnic is excited to lead the innovative Virtual Learning Strategist (VLS) program, which will provide online learning for apprentices with disabilities,” says Dr. Larry Rosia, Saskatchewan Polytechnic president and CEO. “Through VLS Sask Polytech instructors will teach interactive, engaging, customized online learning. Online training provides the learner with access to interactive content as often, and for as long as is required so they can master the materials. Faculty will be able to monitor progress and offer assistance if the learner has difficulties in any subject area.”

New Brunswick’s Apprenticeship Branch has been actively using tools and supports for apprentices with essential skills gaps and learning disabilities since 2012 and has created an array of online tools and resources. In addition, they transitioned services to a virtual format option in 2019 thanks to funding from Employment and Social Development Canada. This existing New Brunswick Apprenticeship Branch program is a model for a collaborative VLS program developed for the OASIS project through Sask Polytech.

“We strive to continually to develop best practices for meeting all of our apprentices learning needs. Our apprenticeship branch has understood the value of providing learning supports to apprentices as a means of decreasing barriers to success for years now,” said Dr. Lori Leach, director of the Virtual Learning Strategist Program in New Brunswick.

The VLS program will provide targeted informal assessments to identify individual needs and implement interventions to directly address these needs. Assessments may cover a wide range of areas and include identification of skills gaps, possible learning disabilities, exam anxiety, and individual factors affecting performance, such as deficits in study skills and motivational factors, and interventions to accommodate sensory disabilities. Based on these informal assessments, customized learning plans will be developed to address identified needs. These plans can include support services provided directly, or referrals may be made for formal assessments and academic supports, as necessary.

“It is an honour to work with NETCO and Sask Polytech in this exciting new project, to provide learning supports to electrical apprentices with disabilities,” said Leach. “In our decade of work, seeing apprentices transition from frustration in technical training, to confident and assured learners and successful certified journey people, just never gets old!”

The VLS program provides upgrading and essentials skills training opportunities on a flexible, accessible, personalized online platform. Through the VLS learning platform instructors will provide targeted informal assessments to identify individual needs and implement interventions to directly address these needs. Assessments may cover a wide range of areas and include identification of skills gaps, possible learning disabilities, exam anxiety and individual factors affecting performance. Instructors will provide apprentices with customized learning plans and interventions to help learners complete the program and reach their educational and career goals.

“Several years ago, I was introduced to the Province of New Brunswick’s groundbreaking VLS program and was inspired to see the doors that it would open for students and apprentices that had learning disabilities, often undiagnosed, and how life changing this program is for so many,” said NETCO executive director Melissa Young. “The electrical industry intrigue was further piqued when Dr. Lori Leach, from the Government of New Brunswick, spoke about this platform at our 2019 NETCO conference, and it has evolved from there. This partnership will take the NETCO training platform including OASIS to new heights and limit barriers for so many at a time when we need all tools at our disposal to fill our ranks with skilled trade professionals. We are very excited about the future of this program and the Canadian electrical industry.”

The VLS program falls under OASIS. OASIS has three main objectives:

  1. Increase support for apprentices at each level of their apprenticeship towards attaining their certificate by creating an on-line national comprehensive learning management system.
  2. Improve knowledge in areas such as academic upgrading, and essential skills for union electrical apprentices, pre-apprenticeship in underrepresented groups and employers.
  3. Provide access to innovative green energy programs that will expose apprentices to the latest technologies in this evolving sector.

The OASIS project will not only better prepare apprentices for new employment through supplemental training but will also help ensure their success in completion of an electrical apprenticeship.