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How Much Do They Make? Short-Cycle Credentials and Applied Learning at Canada’s Polytechnics

In 2018, Canada ranked first among OECD countries in post-secondary education (PSE) attainment. Our global standing as a leader in delivering PSE is well known. Perhaps less well known is that Canada’s high standing is driven in large part by our polytechnic and college sectors — those delivering what the OECD calls “short-cycle tertiary” education. These programs provide professional knowledge, technical skills and in-demand competencies. They link declarative knowledge with practical application, are occupation-specific, and prepare learners to enter the labour market immediately.

Exactly how well do graduates perform in the Canadian labour market? LMIC and EPRI have co-authored a report to answer that question using data from the Education and Labour Market Longitudinal Platform. The report tracks the annual earnings of PSE graduates from the 2010 cohort, through to 2014, assessing earnings trajectories by credential and field of study.

It is clear from these findings why so many Canadians choose polytechnics and colleges: intensive, outcomes-based, applied learning delivers strong labour market dividends. But what exactly differentiates applied learning? Who is taking these intensive programs and why? And what are the rewards and earning potentials of short-cycle credentials?

The Canadian PSE landscape is complex, with polytechnic institutions offering education across the whole knowledge spectrum, from apprenticeships in the industrial trades to certificates to diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. Some, like the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) expand this into master’s degrees and postgraduate certificates. Let’s focus, however, on intermediate credentials, specifically certificates and diplomas, and the institutions awarding them.

Closing the Classroom-to-Workforce Gap Through Industry Engagement

Perhaps the most significant feature of short-cycle credentials, and their recognized value, is the high level of industry engagement throughout the entire learning process. When programs and courses are designed, industry is at the table, ensuring learning of the highest relevance to the current labour market. For example, when new techniques, tools and technologies transform the industry, employers and educators collaborate to ensure that material is incorporated into the curriculum and that up-to-date equipment is available in the classroom.

Institutions that deliver outcomes-based learning also rely heavily on faculty drawn directly from industry. Bringing practical, real-world experience into the classroom bridges theory and application, allowing learners insight into how their new competencies can be leveraged in the workplace. Further, instructors drawn from industry focus first on teaching, instead of research and publication, creating a learner-centric environment.

Short-cycle credentials delivered at polytechnics also usually include work-integrated learning opportunities — co-ops, internships, apprenticeships — that allow students to get out of the classroom and into the workplace. As universities suddenly “discover” work-integrated learning, polytechnics have been successfully applying this “new” model for 50 years.

This alignment of classroom learning to workplace reality allows graduates to come prepared because they’ve been there before, working with industry professionals, on real-world problems. They have a better understanding of the complexities of modern business and work sites, confidently integrating into existing structures.

Who Takes Short-Cycle Credentials and Why?

Canada’s polytechnic institutions promote life-long learning, with certificates and diplomas forming a matrix of incremental, stackable credentials. This provides learners with a high level of flexibility, including entering the labour market with one credential, and returning later as new knowledge and skills are required. As such, short-cycle credentials attract learners at all stages of their careers: youth who have yet to enter the labour market and mid-career workers seeking to upskill or reskill.

While the ease of transitioning into the labour market is attractive, the ease with which an individual can transition into a credential also is critical. Youth can experience “culture shock” upon entering PSE due to teaching and learning styles that are often foreign to them. The anonymity of the great lecture halls, for example, is well documented. Students often find it easier to adapt to the hands-on, collaborative, team-oriented approach of applied learning. Most students find the interactive milieu satisfying and rewarding, which greatly reduces drop-out rates, minimizing failed investments of time and money.

Importantly for youth, shorter, stackable, incremental credentials also mean that learners usually leave PSE with something. If a learner decides to move on after one year of studies, they can enter the labour market with a recognized certificate. Conversely, abandoning a 4-year university degree does not bestow any credential and is often viewed as failure. At BCIT over 40 percent of learners have at least partially completed a university degree.  The value and rewarding nature of applied learning sometimes is only discovered after trial and error.

Outcomes-based credentials also offer significant flexibility to learners within their institution, creating pathways across disciplines and into other credentials. BCIT provides pathways for learners earning intensive credentials to ladder their experience into one of several applied master’s degrees, or their education and experience in the skilled trades into advanced diplomas.  These credentials allow for finding one’s passions and strengths which here means that youth and career changers alike can explore the full spectrum of disciplines and align their strengths and interests with a specific field, instead of potentially pursuing an unfulfilling career.

Finally, short-cycle credentials enable learners to stack credentials across disciplines. More and more, today’s work requires multidisciplinary knowledge and cross-functionality, as technologies, systems and sectors integrate. For example, the construction and agri-food sectors are currently evolving to incorporate digital technologies and new professions are emerging at the interface of traditional fields. Today, as the generalist is as valued as the specialist, learners may choose to earn two certificates, in two separate disciplines, in just two years, and later stack them vertically into another incremental credential.

As our labour market evolves, mid-career workers may need or want to upskill or reskill. BCIT alone enrols 30,000 mid-career learners in part-time and special-purpose programs. Recognizing skills and competencies acquired in non-academic settings is key. The National Advanced Placement and Prior Learning Program maps competencies developed in previous employment against academic programs, allowing veterans, newcomers, tradespeople, first responders and others to obtain advanced academic standing. This enables them to enter longer-term programs at a midpoint rather than sitting through fundamental classes. Leveraging prior learning — both formal and informal — will grow in importance as more and more mid-career workers re-enter education and training.

Applied Learning and Earnings Trajectories: What the Data Says

As always, the proof is in the pudding, or, more accurately, in the paycheque. With a better understanding of what applied, intensive, short-cycle credentials look like, let’s take a closer look at what the data says about the earnings that graduates can expect for their investment.

In short, intermediate credentials command strong starting salaries upon entry into the labour market, as well as solid growth potential over time. In 2010, graduates holding an intermediate credential, in any field of study, already had average earnings of over $35,000 one year after graduation and nearly $47,000 after five — an average growth rate of over 36 percent. The attractiveness of outcomes-based credentials grows further if we consider the speed at which they can be achieved (one to three years) and their lower cost relative to other credentials.

By field of study, the top incomes are in engineering, architecture and related technologies: up to $64,500 five years after graduation. Using the LMIC dashboard, we can further compare earnings by broad fields of study — STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and BHASE (Business, Health, Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences, Education). One year after graduation, some short-cycle credential holders in the STEM fields bring home more than their counterparts with bachelor’s degrees. Short-cycle credentials holders come to the labour market prepared and employers reward them for it.

The distribution of earnings within and across credentials also provides some interesting insights (see Figure 4, on page 29 of the report). First, the earnings potential of intermediate credentials is stable and reliable, with the least variance from highest to lowest. Second, distribution of income by credential also shows that the highest paid collect higher paycheques than many professional degree holders.

The Big Picture and the Next Steps

The value of short-cycle credentials is evident in the data — graduates have strong earnings potential from the moment they enter the labour market. Earnings grow over time, and — depending on field of study — with a short-term investment, graduates can command a significant salary. Incomes are also consistent, with less variance than other credentials, giving learners a much better idea of what they can expect to earn. Entering the labour market with more certainty around potential earnings is beneficial for many reasons, making planning ahead easier.

Of course, these earnings do not always originate with third-party employers: applied skills offer entrepreneurship and self-employment opportunities as well. Many graduates from trades and technology programs open their own businesses, becoming innovators in their fields. And, in a globalized world, they enjoy increased international mobility and skills transferability. The ability to provide practical solutions remains an asset anywhere in the world.

While there is certainly more work to do — assessing the income trajectories of those who hold multiple credentials, for example — this overview by LMIC and EPRI reconfirms the value of short-cycle credentials and applied learning in general. It not only demonstrates what is possible but also how we can use the data to help learners at any age make better decisions about their futures.


Dr. Tom Roemer is Vice-President, Academic at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. He is responsible for providing academic vision at the BCIT as well as leadership in the education, international and applied research portfolios. 


Daniel Komesch is the Director of Policy at Polytechnics Canada. He is responsible for all Polytechnics Canada policy files, with expertise related to skills and employment, apprenticeship and labour market information.

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