"Values" statements



Prepared for the Canadian Labour Congress Training and Technology Committee

Prior Learning Assessment & Recognition (PLAR):
A Statement of Labour Values

This document was based on extensive discussion and broad consultations with representatives from the Canadian labour movement from January 1998 to early 2000. Sessions were organized by the research network for New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto. Our sincere thanks go out to all those who took part, including representatives of the CLC, OFL, MLEC, CSTEC, CLFDB and a large cross-section of national and international unions.

For more information on NALL call 416-923-6641 ext. 2392 or visit: http:/nall.oise.utoronto.ca

Accepted by the CLC Training and Technology committee on
June 26, 2000


  • What is PLAR? A CLFDB Definition
  • Introduction
  • Can PLAR Programs Help Workers?
  • A Labour Vision of PLAR
  • Guiding Strategies for Labour and PLAR
  • Issues in Implementation
  • We Want to Employ PLAR Programs to Assist Labour Educators and Trade Union Activists Accomplish the Following Goals
  • Unions Do Not Advocate the Following
  • Conclusion
  • References
What is Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR)?
A CLFDB Definition

“Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) is a process of identifying, assessing, and recognizing what a person knows and can do.  The process can take various forms and the outcomes can be used for a large number of purposes relevant to the goals of individuals, labour market partners [including unions], and society at large.  PLAR is a process which can be used to look at what a person knows and can do.  It may allow an individual to get some form of recognition for the skills and knowledge he or she has.  PLAR should give equal value to learning and skills whether these come from school, community work, on-the-job training or other life experiences.

Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition may mean receiving credit for a certain level of education or vocational training.  It could also mean that education or training from another country will be recognized for jobs in Canada.  It may mean that credits earned at one school can be transferred to another place so course do not have to be repeated.  Or, it may mean recognizing that a person has all the skills necessary to do a job, but not the required [formal] education.”

Excerpt from “Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition:  Learning has no boundaries” published by the Canadian Labour Force Development Board, #35 January 1997


For the past decade Canadian unions have been grappling with the problem of how to deal with emerging Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) programs. In fact it was the Canadian labour movement which insisted that PLA have an "R" -- for the "R"ecognition of informal knowledge - added to its name.

With the developing interest in PLAR the labour movement sees a long-awaited opportunity for the formal recognition and validation of workers' life experiences and work skills - their informal learning. PLAR offers the promise of credits and academic equivalencies that could, in turn, open up new collective learning opportunities for working people.

Labour’s support for Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition is grounded in the general principles of equity and access, which guide all of labour’s efforts with respect to training, education and employment for working people and their families.

Over the years, unions have defended Canadians' right to free public education and training in one of Canada's two official languages, free apprenticeship training and free community college and university tuition and the need for universal access to education regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, financial circumstances, work situation or citizenship status.

Labour has fought for free basic adult education, including secondary school education, basic skills and second language education for new Canadians. Unions have also fought to ensure transferability and portability of education and training across Canada.

Improving working peoples' access to education and training has been central to labour's agenda. This is where the main promise of PLAR lies. We believe that workers deserve academic credits for informal learning that is acquired through their jobs and family, their unions and community.

However, we acknowledge that for each apparent benefit there may also be an associated risk. One of the potential hazards we recognise is that of PLAR being used by employers to extend their authority over workers. If PLAR is left solely in the hands of employers, it has the potential to become a tool used against - rather than for - working people.

We feel that labour must work to implement a form of PLAR which speaks to workers' collective well-being and interests. This document attempts to frame both the potential and the problems which are presented by PLAR.

Can PLAR Programs Help Workers?

Central to the purpose underlying PLAR is the recognition that significant learning occurs outside the classroom - through informal study and everyday learning within the home, community, union local and workplace.

Properly implemented, with the emphasis on the recognition of workers' prior learning, PLAR can lead to the following rights and benefits:

  • Increased access to training and education programs.
  • Academic credit for learning acquired through our job, union, community and family.
  • School credits for informal knowledge, fulfilling some of the requirements for local school or college courses.
  • Enhanced career and job opportunities with the development of our knowledge and skills.
  • Greater control of our training and skill development, with the focus on' training that workers identify as both necessary and desirable.
  • Increased portability of skills and credentials.
  • Recognition of our existing skills, demonstrating that workers can "do the job" without a certificate, diploma or degree.
A Labour Vision of PLAR

We celebrate the potential for PLAR’s recognition of working peoples' informal and experiential knowledge. Labour supports PLAR initiatives which provide academic credits for the "street smarts" and informal knowledge that workers have acquired.

PLAR’s promise to open doors to further continuing education is in accord with labour's goals with respect to improving education and training.

In our pursuit of a labour vision of PLAR, we will be guided by the following principles:

  • Organized labour supports PLAR initiatives which contribute to remedying systemic injustice. We want to eliminate the barriers to learning, working and earning.

  • PLAR must work to strengthen, not undermine, the public education system. Labour will oppose programs which undermine the public education system and labour-based programs. Furthermore, as the CLC Protocol on the Delivery of Training, Education and Employment Services makes clear, initiatives like PLAR must affirm the principles of equal access and equitable support for a public education system.

  • Workers must be entitled to the social programs and contractually-negotiated support necessary to the realization of further education and training. For example:

    • Workers must have scheduled time away from their paid and unpaid work responsibilities. They need childcare and other supports to pursue learning.
    • A pan-Canadian training tax for employer-paid education, training and upgrading of employees is needed.

  • PLAR must be focussed on the recognition of working peoples' knowledge. Recognition is the identification (through portfolio assessment or other means) of workers' skills and knowledge, gained from work and life experiences. Assessment may involve more testing or other measures to earn PLAR credits, but must involve labour input and fair and transparent processes.

  • Prior learning is the recognition of already-existing knowledge and is best evaluated through portfolio assessment or other participatory means.
Guiding Strategies for Labour and PLAR:
  • The outcomes of PLAR must be designed to benefit working people as a whole. Using PLAR to ‘sort’ workers into categories and invent greater divisions among workers based on their credentials is not an acceptable outcome.
  • PLAR programs and “tools” must be jointly accepted by all parties, including labour unions, business, education institutions and education workers’ unions. Unions must co-determine the content, procedures and delivery of training programs. The assessment process must reflect, and be driven by, consistently applied guidelines which have been developed and agreed upon with full labour representation.

  • PLAR programs must provide for the recognition and crediting of labour-based education and union activities. Labour education and union activities represent a significant area of skill and knowledge development. Labour education and training should be recognized as well as the knowledge acquired in paid and unpaid work, the community and other settings.

  • Critical thinking and well-rounded citizenship (not narrow ‘performance outcomes’ and ‘employment competencies’) must be promoted;

  • PLAR’s recognition and evaluation policies and practices should be learner-centred, thoroughly outlined beforehand and clearly understandable by participants.

  • PLAR must not be used, directly or indirectly, to undermine existing practices and negotiated contractual provisions including those covering job classifications and pay scales, education and training, hiring, promotion, layoffs and seniority rights.

  • The awarding of PLAR credits must not be bound by narrow, standardised testing. We recognise that the fundamental problem with standardised testing is that the context of informal learning is lost.

  • Labour is not opposed to a joint, participatory or internally regulated assessment and recognition procedure.

  • Central to the principles guiding PLAR are that participation and involvement must always remain key elements of PLAR assessment and recognition.
Issues in Implementation

These guiding principles can only be safeguarded where unions have ongoing, formal input and control in the implementation of PLAR programs. Workers and unions must be involved at every stage of the process.

  • PLAR must not shortchange workers via the use of standardised assessment tools
Portfolios which recognize learning are vastly preferred over external testing and rigid assessment tools. Labour needs assessment of training programs, determined with labour input, based on cross-Canada standards and recognition of workers' skills, abilities and interests.
  • Confidentiality must be guaranteed
There are risks when the employer or a third-party is in sole control of a PLAR program. Access to confidential employee disclosures and information must never be a vehicle used against workers. In any PLAR program, confidentiality of all records must be guaranteed.
  • Labour's voice must remain intact
Labour's role in workplace and community PLAR must never become mere tokenism. Labour must always have the right to equal representation in organisations developed to deal with PLAR matters. Labour must have the right to appoint its own nominees to these bodies through our Provincial Federations. Labour members must always speak as labour representatives first when they participate in such organisations.
  • PLAR programs must have equal access and public funding
Individual workers should not be expected to use their own time and money to upgrade to changing standards, whether for higher skills, or just different ones. Otherwise, lifelong learning will be in danger of being individualized and privatized.
  • PLAR programs must focus on ALL workers
As it is currently constituted PLAR tends to focus on already advantaged, skilled workers and ignores semiskilled and unskilled workers in the most need of training and education. PLAR must also focus on basic skills programs, ESL and pre-apprenticeship programs which support women and others routinely barred from trades and technology. PLAR is also an important potential tool for immigrant workers whose skills have not been recognized.

We want to employ PLAR programs to assist labour educators and trade union activists accomplish the following goals:

  • encourage collective interaction (not individualization);

  • strengthen the public education system (not privatize education and training);

  • provide programs that are equitable, universal and free of race, gender, cultural, class and other biases (not geared to assist the already-advantaged);

  • encourage training that is worker-centred and worker controlled, with union input at all stages of the process;

  • provide universal and portable programs (not tied to one employer or job);

  • provide programs that are genuinely voluntary (not mandatory or coercive programs which use workers' education records as a weapon against them).
Unions Do Not Advocate the Following:
  1. An end-run around apprenticeships

  2. Employers may be tempted to use PLA to avoid proper apprenticeship training and provide quicker, customized "designer" apprenticeship. We need to stay away from 'lust enough" training - that is 'lust enough" for what employers want, or training that excludes generic skills which are not immediately needed by employers.
  3. Competency-based standards and their dangerous spin-offs

  4. Without proper vigilance, PLAR may be in danger of aiding competency-based occupational standards set by private corporations. We need vigilance to deflect the corporatisation of the public education system and maintain principles of non-interference in its curriculum.
  5. Shifting training costs to the individual

  6. If PLAR is established without labour's input, workers may be expected to pay for their training with their own time and money. Workers must not be assessed against constantly changing occupational standards set by corporations. Collective responsibility for training needs to be recognised by both employers and government.
  7. Undermining national education standards

  8. A corporate or industrial sector approach to occupations, skills and training inevitably threatens pan-Canadian standards. An institute-by-institute or corporation-by-corporation approach potentially impedes the development of nationally-recognized standards.

In closing, we believe that, with labour's full participation, PLAR has great potential to help workers have their current skills recognized and credited in order to increase access to education and training; to give workers the opportunity to demonstrate that they can perform on the job without the need for formal credentials.

The labour movement supports people's continuing pursuit of learning for their own personal fulfilment and the emancipatory potential of PLAR for working people.

NALL - Year 2000 Statement of 'Labour Values' on PLAR

Sawchuk, Peter H.  (1998).  "This would scare the hell out of me if I were a HR Manager:  workers making sense of PLAR" in Proceedings of the 17th Annual Conference of Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education.  Ottawa:  University of Ottawa, May 1998.
-----(1998).  Building learning capacities in the community and workplace project:  final report of the industrial workplace skills and knowledge profiling research.  Toronto:  Advocates for Community Training and Education for Women.
-----(1998).  Learning, education and PLAR:  A workers' perspective.  (video tape, approx. 22 min.; produced in association with Advocates for Community Training and Education for Women).  Toronto:  Centre for the Study of Education and Work, OISE/UT.
-----(1996).  Report to CEP Local 2000-O on Learning.  Toronto Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.
Vanstone, Sue.  (1998).  A worker perspective on informal learning and PLAR:  Interview material for the NALL Labour Caucus on PLAR.  Toronto:  NALL Network.

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