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Finding the common good


I’ll bet very few Canadians know (or care) about the Manning Networking Conference that occurred in Ottawa over the weekend. But the value of networking couldn’t have been better expressed by the agreement announced there regarding the Canada Jobs Grant.

Some important deadlines needed to be met here: the Labour Market Agreements (LMAs) that currently take federal money to fund employment training programs in the provinces all expire on March 31.

The provinces seemed to be happy with their LMA programs and probably would have quickly signed on for another round of the same. But the feds and a lot of business groups were not happy. The disconnect is most visible in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where unemployment is not the problem. Lack of skills in the labour force for the jobs available is. And for reasons not explained, LMAs haven’t been filling the gap.

Consider: 2013 was a weak year for job growth in Canada. It was the weakest since 2009, actually — and that was during the so-called Great Recession.

You wouldn’t know that here, because 70 per cent of all job growth in Canada took place in Alberta. But in reality, 95 per cent of all new net jobs created were part time.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce suggests this reflects the large numbers of baby boomers who are not going into full retirement, but are staying on as part-time workers. Older females taking part-time jobs, for instance, comprised a large component of that growth.

But even as unemployment remains stubbornly high in Canada, businesses are complaining they can’t find workers qualified for the jobs they’re offering. That may be explained by demographics — how many older workers want to be welders or long-haul truckers?

Just the same, the feds put about $4 billion a year into a whole platform of job training programs. It’s the highest public investment in the OECD. For that much money, a government should expect better results in matching people with good jobs.

At the same time, Canadian business investment in skills training is the lowest in the OECD — yet a sector that invests very little is griping about the quality of workers the training programs produce. Kind of a disconnect there, wouldn’t you say?

So in the 2013 budget, the Canada Jobs Grant was announced to replace the LMA programs set to expire at the end of this month.

The plan was that the federal government, the provinces and industry would become equal partners in job training, for careers that Canadian industry can offer immediately. Each would contribute to a maximum total of $15,000 per worker — with a guaranteed job at the end for each participant.

Guess what? The provinces went ballistic. They weren’t consulted.

A lot of current LMA funding is going to areas of chronic low employment: among aboriginals, disabled people and immigrants. By their own parameters, the programs are working. But not too many aboriginals want to leave home provinces to come to Alberta to work in camps building refineries or oilsands plants.

Small business groups also complained. You can’t ask a contractor to put up $5,000 to train a worker who will promptly leave for more pay at a larger firm — which then gets a trained worker for free.

In the end, the federal government discovered they had to play nice with everyone. After first asserting that they would proceed after March 31, with or without provincial participation (and the loss of funding for the LMAs), Employment Minister Jason Kenney started listening.

Now, small businesses need only put up a few hundred dollars per worker — and even that much money can be accounted for in wages or presumably the supply of tools or equipment.

The provinces get four years to either wind down their LMAs, or slowly find provincial dollars to replace federal money that will be gradually withdrawn. The whole program gets a review in 2015. And nothing changes until July, instead of March.

Only Quebec remains outside of the program. But that province already has a European-style three-part program for jobs training that includes the co-operation of government, business and trade unions.

In fact, Kenney says he’s soon to visit Germany to study their skills training network — and it looks a whole lot more like Quebec’s than Alberta’s.

The bottom line is that everyone found out they need to co-operate if they want to see the money put where it’s needed. They all also need to put some skin in the game if they want credible comment on the outcome.

And everyone needs to keep a little perspective here. The experience of Alberta and Saskatchewan is vastly different than that of high-immigrant B.C., for instance, or of Nova Scotia, which has far less wiggle room in its budget to replace any lost federal dollars. One size does not fit all.

Kenney likes to repeat he is confident the program will become so attractive, it will quickly be oversubscribed. Is that a signal of new re-allocations of their $4 billion-per-year training investment, of which the Canada Jobs Grant is only a small part?

If so, let’s hope there’s a bit more co-operation and consultation, next time around.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

 
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