Skills training, good jobs and growth

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Mon Jun 28 2010.   By Caro; Goar, Editorial Board

Recognizing they faced the prospect of a jobless recovery, world leaders pledged nine months ago in Pittsburgh to “support robust training efforts in our growth strategies and investments.”

They asked the International Labour Organization (ILO), a Geneva-based United Nations agency, to develop a training strategy for consideration at their June 27 G20 summit in Toronto.

The 34-page document, entitled A Skilled Workforce for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth, was presented at yesterday’s meeting. It was far-sighted, intelligent and practical. It gave G20 leaders a way to put decent jobs at the heart of the post-recession economy.

It would be profoundly disappointing if they ignored the ILO report. It offers the hope of a better future to the 4.5 billion people they represent.

But there appears to be little political will — at least in Canada — to look beyond the stabilization of financial markets, the shift from stimulus to restraint and the provision of targeted assistance to poor countries.

For those seeking an agenda that includes them, here is what the ILO told G20 leaders. The only way to achieve lasting growth in today’s world is to “put employment at the centre of economic policies.” Unless countries improve their education and training systems, their productivity will plateau and their standard of living will decline.

It urged governments to tackle seven problems:

  • Spend education dollars where they do the most good. Most G20 countries devote a substantial share of public spending to schools, colleges and universities, but don’t use taxpayers’ money effectively. They underinvest in the weakest parts of the system — basic literacy, early learning and adult education — despite evidence that they offer the biggest payback.
  • Ensure that graduates of the education system are job-ready. Too many young people emerge from post-secondary institutions with few marketable skills, no relevant job experience and no bridge to the world of work.
  • Combat the stigma attached to non-academic training. In their quest to raise education levels, many governments have turned young people away from vocational training. That’s one of the reasons for the mismatch between the supply and demand for skills.
  • Do a better job of forecasting future skills needs. There is “a persistent gap between the kind of knowledge and skills most in demand and those that education and training systems continue to provide.”
  • Make skill upgrading a normal part of working life. Employees need ongoing opportunities to keep pace with changes in technology and the marketplace.
  • Don’t skimp on workforce development. Many governments made job training available to people laid off during the recession, but they underestimated the take-up and overlooked individuals with inadequate language skills, limited schooling and other disadvantages.
  • Resist pressure to cut education and training expenditures to balance government budgets. That sort of retrenchment, the ILO warns, will jeopardize long-term growth and deepen a country’s fiscal problems.

The report did not include country-specific prescriptions. Instead, it offered G20 leaders a set of tools they could adapt to their own circumstances.

It also highlighted approaches that have worked and policies that have shown promise in various countries. Canada’s worksharing program was cited as an effective way of minimizing layoffs. Brazil’s national training institute, SENAI, run by an association of industries and funded by a payroll levy, was held out as a successful model. Australia’s National Quality Council was praised as an effective link between business, government and educators, ensuring that training programs are in sync with the needs of industry.

These ideas and possibilities are being discussed by thoughtful bureaucrats, forward-looking employers, progressive labour leaders and citizens who feel themselves falling behind as the economy picks up.

The challenge is to convince political decision-makers to move from a financial recovery to a real recovery.

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