An HR agenda for Paul Martin (Guest Commentary)

A country that can train is a country that will triumph

Like many developed countries around the globe, Canada’s workforce is getting older, with about one-third now over 45.

The labour force growth rate has slowed and is projected to remain below one per cent for the coming decade. The age of retirement has been receding for more than 20 years and is now about 61.

Canada will be left behind if we do not focus on the engine of our economy — our workforce. The evidence suggests that while an appreciation of this new reality has taken root across the country and among the various stakeholders (business, labour, government and educational institutions), action is still more a promise than a fact.

Consider the mobility of trades workers. In the European Union, each country has nationwide standards recognized by other countries in the union. Nations as diverse as Portugal, France and Switzerland ensure portability and mobility for their workforces. Why can’t we do the same within one country?

The outsourcing or “offshoring” of jobs from the United States has become a central debate in that country’s presidential election. Despite the drop in the U.S. currency, the relocation of manufacturing jobs to lower-wage countries around the world has fueled a healthy debate on the implications for public policy.

While trade policy is not an area where Canada’s business and labour leaders have found common understanding, one thing is clear: unless we work together to ensure that Canadian workers have the skills needed to prosper in a high-value-added economy, Canadian politicians will inevitably face the same offshoring dilemma as our southern neighbours.

The Canadian Labour Congress has encouraged Ottawa to take an aggressive lead in developing a federal-provincial-territorial accord on a national training and apprenticeship strategy. Business and labour would have key roles and responsibilities.

Agreement is needed on a list of trades required by Canada, based on a national occupational analysis, to develop common, appropriate titles for each trade and a standard curriculum for each trade.

This spring Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, a non-profit organization, launched a dialogue within its membership to create a vision of change. Following community consultations and input from industry associations, labour organizations and international experts, CME will be presenting its findings to the federal government in February.

We hope Prime Minister Martin recognizes the imperative and the opportunity to focus on one of the key challenges facing our country’s future prosperity — ensuring our workforce has the skills and training capacity to sustain the innovation that underlies our competitive industrial base. Conflict, competing interests and partisan political debates play an important role in our democracy. However, there are times when shared priorities and economic necessity open doors to real collaboration.

For 20 years, the Canadian Labour and Business Centre has provided a venue for collaboration. Business and labour leaders, along with representatives from the provinces, educators and the federal government have shared perspectives on key economic challenges and worked together to find common understanding.

The Canadian Labour and Business Centre is the forum where a constructive dialogue has already begun on these issues: identifying where the skills shortages are most acute with an ear for the solutions being proposed by the various stakeholders.

Then there comes a moment when only the active focus of the prime minister and federal government will translate constructive dialogue into action.

We believe the human resource challenges facing Canadian employers and Canadian workers create such a moment in our history.

In today’s reality, a country that can learn is a country that can lead. Tomorrow, a country that can train will be a country that can triumph.

Perrin Beatty is president and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters; Ken Georgetti is president of the Canadian Labour Congress; and Shirley Seward is the CEO of the Canadian Labour and Business Centre.

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