The federal government appears ready to take on a bigger role to help business find desparately needed talent.
Senior policy-makers are joining in a series of roundtable discussions on the issue of the skills shortage in Canada and Jane Stewart, Ministert of Human Resources Development Canada has expressed the government’s commitment to solving the problem.
“We in the federal government recognize we need a national skills agenda,” said Stewart, in a speech to participants of the first roundtable, held in Ottawa last month.
While most of the responsibility for labour market development was ceded to the provinces in the mid ’90s, Stewart’s speech and the creation of the roundtables suggest the federal government wants to get more involved again, said Rodney Haddow a professor of political science at St.Francis Xavier University in Antigonish NS, and a participant at the session.
There is a general agreement that more has to be done to find the skilled people in Canada, he said. “She (Stewart) has convinced herself that skills have become a prominent issue.”
It is unlikely the provinces will give any of their powers back, and therefore the federal government will be limited in the actions it can take.
“In effect, if (the federal government) is going to get back into funding training, it will be through tax credits,” said Haddow.
In her speech, Stewart referred to the government’s plan to introduce individual learning accounts. These would allow people to save money for continuous learning while they are working, and the government would provide some top-up funds to access more training.
However, one of the messages emerging from the roundtable was that Ottawa can and should play a more active part helping some of the provinces to enrich Canada’s labour pool so it can meet the needs of businesses.
“We added our voice to the chorus of those that said the skills issue, which despite its provincial jurisdiction, is an issue to the country as a whole,” said David Stewart-Patterson, senior vice-president with the Business Council on National Issues, who also attended the meeting of labour, business and academics.
“Despite the fact that a lot of the mechanisms by which government can act reside within provincial jurisdiction there is certainly a role for co-ordinated pan-Canadian action. There are things that we need to do as a country,” he added.
“The provinces haven’t been doing as good a job,” agreed Stewart-Patterson. “My sense of it is that the transfer of responsibility hasn’t gone evenly across the country.”
The first session focused on creating a more efficient labour market, including using sector councils to foster skills development.
Gary Greenman, executive director of the Alliance of Sector Councils, said he was very encouraged with both the minister’s comments and the establishment of the roundtables. “It is a very good development,” he said.
Talks at the roundtables will focus on a report released last year by a special panel on skills (see http://acst-ccst.gc.ca/act/
skills/home_e.html for the full report).
“The report does contain some wonderful recommendations and we are pleased that the department (HRDC) is having this followup,” said Greenman. At first it wasn’t clear Ottawa was going to do anything to respond to the report. But the presence of senior politicians and bureaucrats may be a sign the government is going to act upon some of the recommendations, he added.
“We feel encouraged that those meetings are taking place and that the department is even considering the recommendations,” he said.
Stewart admitted there has been a lot of talk about the skills shortage for years, but added “conversations are a bit different then they have been in the past.”
“I think what is different now is all the stakeholders are starting to appreciate and view with the same priority the need for us as a country to have a strengthened, more focused skills agenda,” she said.
While there were calls for the federal government to assist some provinces, Ottawa can also play a more active part within its own jurisdiction to improve the flow of skilled labour and improving labour market information, for example. Immigration is also a federal responsibility. The sector councils are looking for federal assistance and there are also calls to improve the national red seal program for apprenticeships.
The issue of labour mobility was also addressed, said Stewart-Patterson. “We tried to highlight measures that discourage mobility,” he said. “The way EI is structured for example, discourages mobility.” And some grant policies encourage people to stay in low-income seasonal work, and discourages them from upgrading and moving to where the work is.
Aside from the contribution of sector councils, discussion covered the apprenticeship system, how immigration can respond to the labour market, and how better labour market information could assist in finding and placing workers.
The sector councils feel they will play a valuable role in improving the efficiency of the labour market by working with colleges and training bodies to ensure they are providing the training and development most needed in the market. However, they feel they will need support from both the federal government and industry to continue that role.
“We would like the government to rethink the funding arrangement with sector councils,” said Greenman. While they were originally intended to be self-supporting, he feels the public good they do warrants additional support.
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