Ottawa should drop bully tactics on job training
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – The Harper government says it wants a dialogue on job training but continues to threaten and browbeat the provinces.
Feb 18 2014. Editorial
Employment Minister Jason Kenney says his government wants an “informed national dialogue” on skills training. But until he and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty stop using threats and ultimatums, no one is likely to join the conversation.
A year ago, Flaherty announced a new job training program, the Canada Job Grant, designed to address the shortage of skilled tradespeople that employers were complaining about. It would be jointly financed by Ottawa, the provinces and participating businesses. To ensure that the provinces paid their share, the federal government intended to wrench back 60 per cent of the training funds it had placed under their control, forcing them to cancel their own programs and forsake the hardest-to-employ – individuals who lacked basic literacy, people with disabilities, at-risk youth and new immigrants.
All 10 provinces were dead-set against it. The private sector was lukewarm.
Initially it looked as if Ottawa was willing to negotiate. In a show of good faith, Kenney offered to change the policy if the provinces presented specific proposals. They worked together and came up with an alternative. Under their plan, the provinces would be allowed to pay their share in cash or in kind, meaning they could provide facilities and equipment for the training and cover the transport and accommodation of the participants. The deadline to finalize the plan would be extended by six months and the program would be subject to review after two years to ensure it was working.
They got their answer in last week’s budget. Ottawa would stick to its April 1 deadline, with or without the provinces. When Quebec Premier Pauline Marois objected, Flaherty dug in his heels: “The money that is being put into job creation, job training in Canada is not provincial tax money, it is federal tax money. And it’s not for a provincial government to tell the federal government how to spend federal tax money.”
Kenney, who has taken issue with Flaherty on other issues, suggested there might be room for flexibility, but fell back into line within 48 hours, grumbling that that the stand-off over the Canada Job Grant had “sucked the oxygen” out of the bigger debate about how to tackle the skills gap facing the country. Had he left it there, Canadians might have agreed.
But he pressed his case provocatively. “We recognize that education is an exclusive area of provincial jurisdiction but I think as a major funder of post-secondary education, we can certainly ask questions about how those investments are being made and how well linked they are to the labour,” he told the Star’s Alex Boutilier.
This is no basis for “dialogue.” It is a thinly-veiled warning. If he wants an exchange of views on job training, Kenny will have to jettison his bully tactics and Flaherty will have to show some flexibility.
The Canada Job Grant, which was sprung on the provinces without consultation, has several serious flaws.
First, there is no credible evidence of a significant skills gap in Canada. The economics team at the Toronto Dominion Bank looked hard for the facts to back up the mismatch between jobs and skills that the government claims is behind youth unemployment. It came up empty-handed. “Our findings pour some cold water on perceptions that Canada’s job market is deeply dysfunctional and currently facing a crisis with respect to skills.”
Second, Ottawa’s grants are targeted at a small segment of the population: young people who want to become electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, carpenters, draftsmen and other building contractors. That excludes the vast majority of the unemployed.
The third defect – the one that has drawn the loudest objections – is that the Canada Job Grant – cannibalizes existing programs that help the mostvulnerable members of society develop the skills they need to compete in the employment market. If Ottawa wrenches back $300 million in provincial job training funds to pay for its new program, they will be left in the lurch.
There is plenty to talk about. The first requirement is a change of tone from the Prime Minister and his lieutenants.
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