Provinces absent from innovation roundtable

One of the goals of last month’s national roundtable on building a culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism was to at least get all the key stakeholders on the same page. Unfortunately, some of the most important players didn’t show up.

Sponsored by Human Resources Development Canada, the session, which was held in Toronto and brought together people from the public and private sector, was the last of three roundtables dedicated to building the highly skilled workforce necessary for the knowledge economy.

Jane Stewart, Minister of HRDC, was on hand, as she was at the first two, to open the session and senior members of her ministry stayed for the whole event. However, the provincial governments, important players in any skills and learning agenda were not represented at all.

The provinces and territories were invited but only the Yukon and Northwest Territories sent representatives. Kevin Constante, Ontario’s deputy minister of Training, Colleges and Universities was originally slated to participate, but did not attend.

“It was very disappointing that the province (Ontario) wasn’t there,” said Ann Cool, a member of the board of directors of Skills Canada, a national non-profit organization dedicated to building awareness about Canada’s skilled labour needs. With the session being held in Toronto, and employers in the province having difficulty finding skilled labour, “you would have thought they would have wanted to hear what other people are saying.”

“It would have been great if the provinces had been there,” agreed Judith Gibson, of the Conference Board of Canada, co-sponsors of the Toronto event. But their absence would not have a negative effect on the larger goal of creating a highly skilled workforce, she said. “I think any day long event is only one small step in the process. If the provinces are never at the table then it would very much slow the process,” she added.

Despite the provinces’ absence, HRDC met its objectives for the roundtables, said David MacDonald, director general of HRDC. The intention was to receive input from key stakeholders, and there were a number of rich and diverse views expressed from people who attended.

He also said the provincial voice was not completely absent from the roundtables. Representatives from Ontario attended the first session on creating a more efficient labour market in February. The Alberta government also had representatives at the second session on learning, held in Edmonton in March.

The success of a new skills and learning initiative will depend on a vibrant partnership between the federal and provincial governments and just because the provinces weren’t well represented at the roundtables does not mean that can’t happen, he said.

There are other vehicles for meeting with the provinces, most notably the Forum for Labour Market Ministers and the Council of Ministers of Education.

Aside from the absence of the provincial governments, the rest of turnout was very good, and the dialogue was very powerful, said Cool, who is also vice-president of strategic capability development at Algonquin Automotive, an Ontario-based manufacturer of automotive accessories.

The biggest question is who is going to be held accountable. This has been an issue for years but so far nobody has got it right, in part because individual agendas of key stakeholders have got in the way, she said. It is not just the federal government that has to take action. It will take everybody coming together and putting their personal agendas aside, she said.

The challenge for HRDC will be to follow through on some deliverables, said MacDonald. But he also said the intention of the roundtables is not just about federal government action plans. It is about getting all of the senior players to align their goals.

In her speech to open the roundtable, Stewart pointed out that eight million Canadians lack the basic literacy levels needed to participate fully in the knowledge economy. And just 31 per cent of Canadian businesses say they train employees. In the United Kingdom, it is closer to 80 per cent.

Proof, said Stewart, that Canada has to take action to increase the number of highly skilled Canadians who are able to participate in the new economy.

“Time is an issue though. And, if you as private sector employers, have any thoughts about how to help your employees, busy as they are at work doing a job for you, at home caring and bringing up their families, participating as volunteers in their communities. If you can help them find time to continue to learn that would be a great contribution. How do we do that? What’s the value? And those are the strategies that we have to identify,” she said.

While most of the responsibility for education and training falls to the provinces, there is also a lot the federal government can do improve the skills of Canadians, said MacDonald.

For instance, Ottawa plans to help working Canadians pay for their own continuing education. Individual learning accounts will encourage people to invest in their own education. And there is a commitment to expand the part-time student loan program. Plus, HRDC is committed to helping sector councils develop the labour pool.

Also, there is a knowledge generation infrastructure in place that is being enhanced through grants and funding for innovation — the creation of 2,000 new university research chairs for example.

“We haven’t finished the public engagement,” said MacDonald. The dialogue with key stakeholders will continue for a little while before the government decides on a course of action. “I think the one thing that has struck HRDC in particular is that no matter who we talk to there really is a common consensus on the diagnostic that Canada has to do more to develop the skill of the workforce.”

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