Yes, Minister, it’s time to put Canadians first

June 24, 2014

This week, Employment Minister Jason Kenney is coming to Toronto to host what’s being billed as a “skills summit”― a grand meeting of some of the country’s better minds to talk about fixing the disconnect between employers who can’t find the skilled workers they require and a generation of Canadians who can’t find the good jobs they need.

Canada is already facing a strong challenge on this front. Global competition for skilled workers is fierce. Unemployment and underemployment are stubbornly high across much of Canada where workforce participation rates are already dropping due to our aging population. The demands of new technology and the knowledge-based economy are growing fast.

These are serious challenges. The price for ignoring them is a lower standard of living for future generations. In response, Canada should focus on building the best-educated, skilled and inclusive workforce in the world.

The good news is that Canada’s formal education system is performing relatively well. Canadian students are among the world’s top performers in reading, math and science. Canada sits in first place among OECD countries with the highest rate of post-secondary qualifications among its population. Yes, there are challenges to be addressed here too, but overall, our formal educations system provides a solid foundation for building a highly skilled workforce.

The bad news is we’re not building on that good foundation. Once school’s out, we fall down on the job. Unlike the competition, Canada lacks an extensive or equitable adult learning and workplace training system. Less than 30% of our adults participate in non-formal training programs and participation is highly concentrated among workers who already have high levels of formal education and skills.

The problem starts with a lack of investment. Over a single generation, employer investment in training has dropped by 40%. Canada’s expenditures on training are among the lowest in the industrialized world.

Policy decisions on the part of the federal government have made things worse. They cut funding for labour market research and information, took a top-down, we-know-what’s-best approach with the Canada Job Grant, and gutted funding for literacy programs. Cuts to Employment Insurance (EI) have resulted in less than 40% of unemployed workers being able to qualify for the EI training programs they already paid for, with EI premiums while they worked.

Despite some recent progress, the share of Canadians in apprenticeship programs remains a tiny fraction of the workforce. Only 19% of skilled trades employers train apprentices. Only half of all apprentices currently complete their training.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The federal government can make better choices, starting with more investment, from itself as well as employers.

If all goes according to plan, the next federal budget will have a significant surplus. After years of belt tightening, it’s time to invest more in our most valuable resource – our people.

The EI fund is also on track to have large surpluses in the coming years. Rather than freezing or cutting premiums, some of the funds should be used to restore access to training.

It’s time to put Canadians and the good jobs they need first. The federal government should use some of those surplus dollars to invest in a new plan of action that includes:

  • Restoring funding to Statistics Canada to collect more reliable labour market data at the occupational and local levels.
  • Bringing key stakeholders together through a national Labour Market Partners Forum to develop strategies, policies and programs that work for everyone. Restoring funding to the multi-stakeholder Canadian Apprenticeship Forum would be a good place to start.
  • Allowing employed workers to upgrade their skills through training leave they can access through the EI program, similar to the one that already works to support apprentices during the classroom part of their training.
  • Expanding training opportunities for unemployed Canadians by setting a national eligibility requirement of 360 hours for EI-funded Labour Market Development Agreement (LDMA) programs and providing EI income support benefits for the full duration of the programs.

Investing more in promoting apprenticeship to young people and encouraging employers to invest in training apprentices. Funds transferred to provinces, territories and municipalities through the Building Canada Fund support the use of apprentices and Canada’s provinces and territories should be encouraged to harmonize their own apprenticeship programs to improve mobility.
Building a highly skilled workforce is central to confronting the economic challenges Canada faces today and in the years to come. The need and urgency is great, but we have the resources to get the job done.

All that’s missing is strong leadership from the federal government. Minister Kenney’s “skills summit” this week could offer a hint of that leadership, if it exists at all.