Minister of Finance Bill Morneau talks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 7, 2017. Expectations are running high that next week’s federal budget will provide a more detailed federal strategy — and perhaps more cash — to help post-secondary students land real-life work experience in emerging, employee-starved fields. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Hopes high for federal budget aimed at boosting high-tech job skills, expertise

Advocate watching budget for signs of framework

OTTAWA — Expectations are running high that next week’s federal budget will provide a more detailed federal strategy — and perhaps more cash — to help post-secondary students land real-life work experience in emerging, employee-starved fields.

In last year’s budget, Ottawa committed $73 million over four years to fund an initiative aimed at ensuring that what’s being taught inside the classroom is better aligned with the tech-related needs of the job market.

Specifics have yet to be released, but the government plans to launch the program this year — and advocates will be watching the March 22 budget for signs of a framework.

“Students today want to get their hands dirty as part of the university experience,” said Universities Canada president Paul Davidson, noting there have been good discussions about work-integrated learning over the past year.

“There might be some amplification of it in the budget there might be an extended commitment to it.”

Last year, the government set aside money for new co-op placements and work-integrated learning in anticipation of a program to encourage participation in “high-demand fields,” such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics and business.

The feds billed it at the time as part of a broader plan for a so-called “innovation agenda,” a strategy to foster the growth of young, high-potential firms in Canada and encourage talented graduates to stay in the country.

The government is counting on that strategy to help drive Canada’s long-term economic growth.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s second budget comes amid growing awareness that a wide range of today’s jobs will eventually be replaced by the rapid advance of new technologies, such as automation and artificial intelligence.

The Liberal government has spent more and more time in recent weeks talking about the need to address the evolving labour market, as well as the importance of finding ways to increase participation in the workforce.

Job skills will be “one of the key areas of focus” in the budget, Morneau said last week.

“I’m confident that we’ll help Canadians get the skills they need in a challenging economic environment,” he said.

“We’ll be thinking about not only how we can grow the economy, but how we can ensure that Canadians are prepared for the exciting and good opportunities that will come out, not only for this generation, but for the next generation as well.”

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said he hopes Ottawa’s efforts will also acknowledge and help the more informal skills-boosting approaches relied upon by small- and medium-sized companies.

There’s rarely any government support for those firms that enlist existing staff members to show young or inexperienced workers the ropes, such as teaching them to use a piece of equipment, Kelly said.

Ottawa does, however, provide considerable support for formal skills training through the Canada Job Grant, through employment insurance measures and by way of transfer payments to the provinces for university and college funding, he added.

Canada’s smaller firms — 75 per cent of the country’s companies have fewer than five employees, Kelly noted — are often ill-equipped to take advantage of federal grants because there’s so much paperwork.

“If there are some budget measures to facilitate informal, on-the-job training, we would certainly be a cheerleader for that.”

However, there are growing calls for the government to first figure out precisely what credentials the job market is looking for.

Otherwise, Canada could find itself with too many people with skills that the market doesn’t need, said Nobina Robinson, CEO of Polytechnics Canada, a national organization representing public colleges and polytechnics.

“I certainly believe that we should have more education that leads to employment — work-integrated learning helps that, no question,” Robinson said.

Robinson said she wants to see improvements in Canada labour-market data, something the federal government’s influential advisory council on economic growth pushed for last month in its latest recommendations.

The council, led by McKinsey &Co. global managing partner Dominic Barton, has already helped guide Ottawa in shaping policies.

“Governments, academics, and others have long recognized the need for more timely and reliable labour market information,” said the Barton report, which described the data as “disorganized” and a challenge for policy-makers.

Davidson, whose organization represents 97 institutions, said only about 55 per cent of university students have some form of co-op or internship and he’d like that number to reach 100 per cent.

He’s also expecting work-integrated learning to emerge as a priority when a federal panel of youth-employment experts release their findings in the coming weeks.

“There seems to be momentum around this,” Davidson said.

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