The federal government will offer businesses financial incentives to upgrade workers skills, said Joe Volpe, minister of the newly created department of Human Resources and Skills Development.
“Traditionally, our employers have not spent much money on training. They spend even less on skills upgrading. So we need to get into a partnership with many employers that allows them — that compels them — to establish a culture of workplace development of their own personnel,” said Volpe, who spoke to
Canadian HR Reporter
before the federal budget announcement.
“We need to have funds directed to ensuring that our employers also value the importance of workplace skills development.”
Some of the financial incentives may take the form of tax credits, said Volpe. Others are redirected from job-creation funds that are traditionally used in “one-off situations” where “we go into the community and somebody creates a job and we provide them (money) for it. We need to be more systematic and strategic about it.”
Using the automotive and the mining industries as examples, Volpe said investment in training can help establish the global value of Canadian technology and Canadian know-how.
“If we take miners, we can begin to equip them, in terms of skills, to the point where they can go anywhere in the world and be prized as the most capable miners available. And their skill level can put them so far beyond anybody else in the world that we can export these project teams, if you will, and train others.”
So instead of providing Employment Insurance funds to help miners who are off work a certain number of months a year, the department can invest in training, recognizing that “what we’re doing here is transforming our society,” he said.
Part of the process of raising the skills levels of Canadian workers, he added, involves giving recognition to the learning that’s already taking place in the workplace.
“Many men and women working on the factory floor today are much more sophisticated than what their level of formal education would suggest. They have to know how to manipulate the computers, the robots, how to address the needs and demands of a workplace that’s mechanized and robotized,” said Volpe.
“We’re not recognizing the level of skills that people have acquired in order to fulfill the duties of their jobs. And once we’ve done that, the assessment process and the certification process, then we can export that learning and export the quality of our products.”
But despite backing at the federal level, such skills assessment and recognition initiatives typically stall at the provincial level. For example, a large part of prior learning assessment takes place at community colleges, but colleges don’t publicize these programs because it’s more costly to assess people for prior learning than to have them take courses the traditional way.
Asked about the level of co-operation he would need from the provinces to carry out initiatives related to training, a provincial jurisdiction, Volpe took a hard tone.
“We make a huge contribution to post-secondary education, and that’s not just directly through the students but through the institutions themselves, the universities, the colleges and whatnot. Whether the provinces choose to acknowledge that or not, it’s there.
“Secondly, we have struck labour market development agreements with most of the provinces. It’s a lot of money. I get upset when people say we’re not involved. We transfer the money over to the provinces and we still have problems. I think that gives me a lot of leverage.”
If the provinces don’t demonstrate a level of flexibility and co-operation when it comes to training, he added, “we’re going to spend (the money) differently.”
He said that he’s determined to make the trades apprenticeship system more adaptable to labour market needs, despite the fact that trade skills training falls under provincial jurisdiction. “I’m determined to get into those partnerships, to get to the people who are on the ground.”
On the question of EI, he balked at the argument that either qualification rules should be relaxed to give unemployed workers greater access, or the premiums should be lowered to reduce the tax burden on employers.
“If you take Joe as a productive worker, and you make sure he stays in a productive and competitive mode, is that a good investment of his premiums? The answer is yes,” said Volpe. As for employer premiums, “the additional $10 or $20 a year is probably well worth the kind of security and wealth (employers) are getting.”
$37 million boost to sector councils
Emphasizing the need to work in partnership with industries to invest in skills training, Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Joe Volpe announced last month a $37-million injection into 31 sector council projects.
The funds include project-based grants as well as money to cover operating costs. Sector councils are industry alliances bringing together business, labour and educational representatives to identify workforce development needs particular to each sector.
At the Mining Industry Training and Adjustment Council, interim executive director Paul Hébert said the $869,978 will help the sector council complete a sector study to identify the demand for mining workers and to suggest a course of action.
“The overall goal is to address the looming skills shortfall with the demographic bubble. Our anecdotal evidence says at least 50 per cent of the workforce is going to retire in the next five to 10 years, leaving a huge gap in the workforce,” said Hébert.
“Because of technological change in the mining industry, not only do these retiring people have to be replaced, they will have to be replaced with people with different skill sets. So we have a recruiting, retaining and development challenge ahead of us as an industry.”
The funds are “very critical to the sector council partnership model operating effectively in Canada. It allows sector councils to concentrate more on program development and delivery than on fundraising activities,” said Gary Greenman, executive director of The Alliance of Sector Councils.
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