Retraining needs rethink – Opinion/editorial – Retraining needs rethink
January 19, 2009

If you’re a laid-off auto worker with a family to support, at what point do you decide to give up on work for a year or two and go back to school to train for another career?

It’s an incredible leap of faith so it’s welcome that the Ontario government wants to help some people make it. The Second Career retraining program offers funding for tuition in selected college courses and help with living expenses, such as mortgage payments.

It’s undoubtedly working for some – more than 4,000 are in school or in the approvals process – but the program design makes it next to impossible for many others to use.

The average Second Career grant, to date, is $19,000. That’s for programs ranging from six months to two years and covers both tuition and living expenses. So clearly, it’s not much to live on.

For many laid-off workers who’ve already been surviving on about half their normal income with employment insurance – if they even managed to qualify for EI benefits – the prospect of spending a couple more years living on a pittance is too depressing to contemplate.

The program was designed as a “shared contribution” system with the government and the worker both playing a financial role, says Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities John Milloy.

While that seems fair, too many laid-off workers simply don’t have the ability to pay their share.

By keeping the per-person funding low, says Milloy, the government is able to offer the service to more people. Higher numbers may sound good in political speeches, but not so good is a program design that precludes those who need help the most.

Retraining workers isn’t just about helping the individuals; it is also about improving Ontario’s economy over the long haul. It does nobody any good to have too many unskilled workers scrambling for too few low-paying jobs.

That’s why we should all be concerned if financial barriers and a cumbersome application process are discouraging people from pursuing retraining. Instead, many are opting for low-paying “survival jobs” or staying home until their EI benefits run out in the hope their plant shift will be called back.

Given the state of the economy, that dim hope is fading fast. So the government is probably right in its assessment that over time more people will enrol in Second Career retraining and easily fill the 20,000 spaces covered by the $355 million budget. But that doesn’t mean the government should ignore the program’s flaws.

Of course, if the government fixes the program, it would have the opposite problem on its hands: oversubscription.

In a province where 200,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2003, a program with just 20,000 spaces will never be enough. Milloy is quick to point out that Second Career “is not for everyone.” That just prompts the question: What’s available for everyone else?

If Premier Dalton McGuinty is serious about Ontario’s future as a knowledge-based economy with the best and brightest workers, he’s going to have to put more money into retraining programs and redesign them to make them more accessible.

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