Jobs vs. the ‘right’ jobs: Budget poised to make skills training a priority

The federal government has dropped strong hints that the upcoming federal budget will place greater emphasis on matching young Canadians’ skills with openings in the job market — a bid to more efficiently fill labour gaps across the country while at the same time encouraging lower unemployment rates for those just starting their careers.

What hasn’t been revealed ahead of Thursday’s budget date, however, is how exactly that matching and funding will be implemented.

With a youth unemployment rate in the range of 15 per cent, and an austerity budget in the works that offers little in the way of new programs, the government has indicated it will likely change the rules for provinces on an existing jobs skills program. The Conservative government currently gives the provinces $2.5 billion annually to train skilled workers, with little direction on how thatis spent.

“Are we seeing the kind of employment outcomes that we expected to see? What is the degree of accountability?” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said earlier this month at a news conference, hinting that the government was not impressed with the results of the funding.

“We’ve got to do a better job of connecting the skills that people have and the education that people have, with the jobs that are available in Canada.”

According to the most recent job vacancy data, there are about 243,000 job vacancies across the country, with the highest vacancy rates in Alberta and Saskatchewan. There are also more than 1,332,000 Canadians currently looking for work, creating a situation where there are 5.2 unemployed people for every available position.

The problem, many analysts suggest, is that job-searchers are not effectively being paired up with the types of jobs available. The data shows prospects are best in such fields as administrative support, science and technology, health care and mining. The job market is oversaturated when it comes to education, manufacturing and retail.

That leaves Ottawa wrestling with how to redirect people toward the positions available — a problem that’s only expected to worsen as the working population moves closer toward retirement.

While critics have been sounding the alarm on a potential labour shortage in skilled trades for years, the federal government has been weighing options to combat the crunch, including fast-tracking immigration for certain skilled workers and raising the retirement age to 67.

Some suggest a revamp of the job skills program — including more funding and greater oversight — is the solution needed.

A couple of options have already been raised:

  • Vouchers: The government would give vouchers to Canadians which they would use to pay for college programs or training that would certify them in a trade, or allow them to upgrade their skills.
  • Tax credits: This would function as an incentive for employers to train apprentices.

The Canadian Building Trades organization (CBT) is one of the groups calling for change.

Robert Blakely, a director of the CBT, told CTVNews.ca that the baby boom generation — set to retire in the next five or six years, many from trade-based jobs — represents a “demographic time bomb.”

Blakely spoke in December to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (HUMA). He advocated for a voucher system, which would see the federal government pay for every apprenticeship’s “educational seat” in the country.

Blakely said he’s not “hung up on the idea of a voucher system,” but says there is need for some kind of change.

“I’m hung up on the ability of us as a country to deliver on some of the nation-building stuff that comes from having a mobile, highly trained, highly skilled, construction workforce.”

The current apprenticeship system in Canada is not unified, and even though an increasing number of Canadians are registering for apprenticeships, the number of people completing these programs has remained stagnant, Blakely said.

With many workers moving province to province, education needs to be made more “portable,” he said, so it lends to apprentices actually completing their certification.

Blakely also said to get trained as an apprentice in the construction trades, you first need to land a job.

In an interview with CTVNews.ca, NDP Finance Critic Peggy Nash said a tax-credit system — which would reward employers for training workers — carries risk for abuse.

“This could be a positive thing but will it just be something that subsidizes employers for training they would have done anyway? Or is something that will subsidize employers to bring people in from other countries and pay them less money on a temporary basis? Are they going to bring foreign students in for below minimum wage on the grounds that they’re somehow gaining valuable Canadian experience?”

Glen Hodgson, Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist of The Conference Board of Canada, said he would not be surprised to see the federal government take greater control over the funding of skills training.

“We know that there’s been a bit of slippage in some provinces. Maybe they’re not getting the bang for their buck they’re expecting,” he told CTV’s Power Play in an interview last week.

In a follow-up interview with CTVNews.ca, he said the government was “a little too willing to pass the baby over the fence” when it handed over funding to the provinces without solid guidelines.

“The fundamental find is, when you’re training people, you don’t assume people are going to stay where they’re trained … We should be building a skill set that can be useful across the whole country and that’s where the federal government, I think, needs to have a role in this,” said Hodgson.

He referred to a voucher program as too “prescriptive” and there needs to be flexibility “to make it work in the real world.”

It is still unclear if a voucher system will be implemented, but Hodgson thinks Canadians will find the idea of more federal control acceptable.

“I think most Canadians would understand if you’re going to spend money on skill development, on training, you want to have clarity on what skills to develop, who qualifies, how long they would qualify, when they get the credentials, and what are governments going to do to help them find a permanent job.”

In its recent report card, The Conference Board of Canada issued the country a “B” for its economic performance.

According to the report, Canada is lacking in terms of productivity and attracting investment. The board said in order to boost its economy, Canada needs to focus on investing in the skills of its workforce, which currently does not meet the country’s high demand for skilled tradespeople.


Originally published at www.ctvnews.ca.