Skilling UP: Putting the customer first

By Cindy Messaros, Executive Director, Alberta Workforce Essential Skills


The Original Skilling UP Model

Skilling UP was originally conceived for two purposes:

  1. To examine the effectiveness of a Social Finance model in increasing essential skills in the workplace
  2. To better measure the potential return on investment to Canadian employers willing to fund essential skills training for their employees

To meet those goals, the project planned to test a performance-based financial reimbursement to the employer. The employer was required to invest in the training up front, and if the predicted skill gains were achieved, the employer would be reimbursed for up to 50 percent of their training cost and 50 percent of the costs associated with sending their employees for training. The skill that we proposed assessing was Document Use.

Delivery of the program within one company, at multiple sites, would demonstrate whether the approach to instruction and quality assurance were enough to generate high quality results.

To measure the actual results of training, the project featured a randomized control trial to assess the results of the trained group against the group that did not receive any training.  The control group would receive their training one year following the trained group.

The financial and reimbursement aspect of the model proved too complex to implement with our original partner, an international environmental services company. To maintain the integrity of the research component, we continued to pursue partnerships with large companies capable of providing both a training group, and a control group, of 750 participants each. However, we encountered some issues with selling the model:

  • The employers were not interested in Document Use training and measuring skill gains in Document Use.
  • We did not know how long the training would take to complete, because we did not have any prior knowledge of the participants’ skill levels, or of the company’s pain points. We were attempting to sell a solution without knowing first what the problem was.
  • Since we didn’t know how long the training program would be, we did not have a mechanism for providing a cost.

Back to the Drawing Board

The bottom line was that employers were not interested in investing in a program with predetermined outcomes, even if it meant receiving a reimbursement. They were concerned that the pre- and post- assessments and the time needed for research would put a strain on them. We had to go back to the drawing board to try to salvage the model.

We needed a strategic partner with access to a large network of employers. We began working with the Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium (EMC), who helped us craft a marketing message that would appeal to a wide variety of manufacturing companies. CMN-EMC also assisted us in formulating a concrete per-participant cost for employers.

We offered to complete the organizational needs assessment at no charge and to share the training recommendations with the company before requiring them to invest in training. We changed the messaging regarding the objectives of training, from strengthening Document Use skills, to increasing productivity through increasing essential skills. We decided to target medium sized businesses and considered a consortium model of training to keep the research design intact.

AWES spent two years determining how to sell the original model, losing companies along the way because the initial parameters were too complex. During this time, other factors worked against us: the price of oil fell dramatically, resulting in hundreds of thousands of layoffs in Alberta and across Canada. Employers were not in a position to invest in training. Labour market instability was also affected by a provincial election in Alberta, followed immediately by a federal election. We continued refining the model to work with the reality of the market. Employers were not interested in a consortium model as they did not feel comfortable tying their reimbursement prospects to the training outcomes of outside companies. However, they were showing an interest in other aspects of the training; thus, AWES worked with SRDC towards a revised research design that reflected the operational challenges. Conversations with employers confirmed that collaboration, customization, and providing a tangible service to companies would be the only way to procure participants.

The New Model

After struggling to find the elements of a complex model that would work for the project outcomes and for the employer partners, time was running out. OLES gave AWES a 30-day deadline to confirm employer partners. We had been developing relationships, moving through layers of management in larger companies, and we were beginning to gain traction and interest. Relationship building is not a fast or easy process; however, in those 30 days AWES was able to secure signed letters of interest with Chapman’s, THK Rhythm Automotive, and Cosmetica Laboratories.

Text Box: Conversations with employers confirmed that collaboration, customization, and providing a tangible service to companies would be the only way to procure participants.

We completed an Organizational Needs Assessment (ONA) for each employer at no cost, designed training recommendations, and collaborated with each partner to determine the training path. We did pre and post assessments to measure skill gain, and one-year post assessments to measure skill maintenance. We offered flexible training plans to fit with production schedules and provided supervisor training to solidify the front-line training. All the companies involved in the project received a reimbursement, and we are now working with one of those companies to implement on-going training using this model even without the reimbursement.


What is Skilling UP?

Skilling UP is an essential skills training model that aligns content to workers essential skills levels and the company’s organizational goals. It was funded by the Government of Canada, through the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES). 


To learn more about Skilling UP training and how to get results, please contact:

Cindy Messaros, Executive Director, AWES



Skilling UP is the result of a partnership between the Alberta Workforce Essential Skills Society (AWES) and SkillPlan, DataAngel, the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC), and the Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium (EMC). The project was funded by the Government of Canada, through the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES).