It’s already a significant problem, and it’s only going to get worse: Canada’s skills gap is making it increasingly difficult for employers to find the workers they need.
At the same time, unemployed workers are looking for jobs — just not the same jobs employers are trying to fill. Almost 1.4 million Canadians are currently unemployed while 216,100 jobs remain vacant, according to the federal Ministry of Employment and Social Development.
“One of the greatest challenges to Canada’s continued economic growth is the skills mismatch, which makes it difficult for employers to fill jobs,” said Nick Koolsbergen, a spokesperson for the ministry. “With skills shortages growing and too many Canadians still unemployed, investments in job creation and skills training must be improved to deal with this challenge — the status quo has not been effective.”
Canada Job Grant
To break with that status quo, the federal government designed the Canada Job Grant — an initiative that involves employers more directly in the process, said Koolsbergen.
“Employers have been expressing frustration for some time that they are excluded from direct involvement in skills training programs, and this has to change in order to effectively tackle skills shortages,” he said.
“The Canada Job Grant responds directly to this request by employers by putting job creation and skills training decisions in their hands. We recognize that employers, not governments, best understand skills training and labour market needs.”
Jason Kenney, minister of employment and social development, has promised the Canada Job Grant will also be flexible to the needs of provinces and territories, which have met the grant proposal with significant resistance as it would divert funding from existing provincial and territorial programs.
But the job grant is an employer-friendly solution, said Kenney.
“The federal government plays a key role in creating the conditions for strong private sector job creation and positioning the country for success in the global economy,” he said in an address to business leaders at the Economic Club of Canada. “The Canada Job Grant is the cornerstone of our plan to make federal funding for job creation and training more demand-driven and ensure that employers are part of the solution.”
The skills gap may not be as hard to bridge as some might think — or at least Canada may have a leg up on other countries. That’s because Canadians have a better than average chance at being technologically proficient, according to a survey.
Canadians have above-average skill proficiencies when it comes to problem-solving in a technology-rich environment, according to a 2012 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey that tested adults aged 16 to 65 across 24 different countries.
“(We tested) three subject or competency areas: numeracy, literacy and problem-solving in a technology-rich environment,” said Tamara Knighton, chief of special surveys and education at Statistics Canada, which was involved with the OECD report.
“So these are three skill sets that collectively the OECD countries believe are important for being able to function in today’s society.”
Canadian participants compared favourably to their international counterparts, particularly in their technology-related skills.
“We have a higher proportion of Canadians who do extremely well in problem-solving in a technology-rich environment,” said Knighton. “In terms of the broad findings, what we have found is that in general we’re well-equipped to deal with the skills demand of the 21st century.”
Stronger focus on apprenticeships
But matching up job vacancies with problem-solving Canadian workers takes one key ingredient — training and skills development. And that’s where we may be missing the mark, according to Sarah Watts-Rynard, executive director at the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.
“We have been providing information to young people, certainly over the last couple of decades, that encouraged people to (take) a university pathway… we really haven’t been encouraging people to go into the trades,” she said.
“At the same time, we have a generation that is coming very close to the end of their careers. Baby boomers are getting to the age of retirement and they’re really likely to leave the workforce… so I think we’re in a bit of a demographic crunch... we have an older than average skilled trades workforce, and they’re going to be leaving.”
Employers in skilled trades industries need to put a stronger focus on apprenticeships and training opportunities, said Watts-Rynard.
“Apprenticeship, I think, needs to be a bigger part of the solution, and this is about understanding unemployment in Canada and seeing that we have workers that want to do jobs, and it’s about connecting them with the skills to be able to do the jobs. So it’s not a labour shortage, it’s a skills shortage,” she said. “We have to look to young people who are perhaps not finding success in the labour market.”
American workers potential resource
In addition to government investment and a stronger focus on skills development, American workers may also be part of the solution.
But there is no simple mechanism for bringing in U.S. workers, according to Laura Dawson, president of Dawson Strategic and author of a Conference Board of Canada study on the subject.
“Many, many employers are reporting that the biggest impediment to their growth is a lack of skilled workers,” she said. “In Canada, that has to be one of our biggest competitiveness priorities — getting the workers we need deployed to where they (are needed).”
Alberta, currently facing one of the most severe skilled workers shortages in Canada, launched a pilot project that, while not aimed exclusively at Americans, brought 1,000 U.S. workers into the province.
U.S. workers are desirable to many Alberta employers because they have similar training and experience, understand the language and workplace culture, and can enter the country without a visa.
That pilot project presented lessons and solutions for employers throughout Canada — solutions that will become more and more urgent as it faces ever greater competition for skilled labour internationally, said Dawson.
“As our skilled (worker) pool is shrinking in Canada, we are also facing greater competition for imported skills,” she said. “There are fewer push factors pushing workers out into the international labour market, so there’s... better options to just stay home.”
If we don’t address the skills gaps specific to regional areas such as Alberta, the effects will reverberate through the national economy, said Dawson.
“If you have everything else in place to expand your business… but you can’t get the workers you need in order to do that, then that has huge trickle-down effects for all of the other (industries) that are affected by that,” she said.
“It’s not just an Alberta problem, it’s a whole of Canada problem… if the economy shrinks or stalls, we are all affected by that.”
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