Whither the skills agenda?

Government still committed but must move ahead in “measured, careful, thoughtful ways,” says HRDC minister.

Federal Finance Minister Paul Martin is preparing to table a new budget this month and there are signs that the government, no longer able to afford it, will put aside its much-hyped agenda on innovation and skills.

That would be a mistake, said David Zussman, president of the Public Policy Forum. Addressing national security concerns is very important, but the federal government must not forget its pledge to help Canadian employers find skilled workers, he said.

A national skills agenda is needed to ensure Canada maintains a leading place in the global economy. And it needs to be included in this budget, he added. It can’t be put off for another year because other urgent needs could come up and push it aside once again.

The national focus on security is appropriate, Zussman told the Canadian Club of Ottawa. “But we cannot allow our urgent needs to completely overshadow other important long-term agenda items.”

For months the federal government, in particular Human Resources Development Canada Minister Jane Stewart and Industry Minister Brian Tobin, have been talking about a comprehensive plan to help enrich Canada’s labour pool. A series of studies and roundtables gathered feedback from across the country and the strategy was to be revealed this fall.

But in recent weeks the rhetoric about the skills agenda has been tempered, though not completely absent. At a speech to the Toronto Board of Trade, in late October, Stewart said much has changed since Sept. 11 and national security has become the priority.

“But the government is expected, and must not lose track of the other important initiatives that will ensure our economic security and social cohesion,” she said. “We have to do what needs to be done to restore, as I say, the confidence of Canadians in our own security. But we have to also, I believe, move ahead in a measured, careful, thoughtful way on other important initiatives.”

Martin has reportedly warned his colleagues that the money slated for the skills agenda is no longer there, but Tobin has said his innovation program will go ahead.

Some of the money that was originally going to the skills agenda might now go to the fight against terrorism. “But I don’t think money is at the heart of the issue,” Zussman said in an interview.

The government can do a great deal just by becoming a champion of skills development, educating Canadians about the need to be highly skilled in the new economy, as well as promoting the need for co-operation amongst the stakeholders, he said.

One of the themes that emerged from the roundtables was that an important challenge in creating a coherent national strategy for skills development is bringing the multiple stakeholders — federal and provincial governments, educational institutions and employers — together in a co-ordinated effort.

“At the moment, we have too many actors trying to claim ownership, imposing their own way on others without sufficient regard for the interests and legitimacy of other stakeholders,” Zussman told the Canadian Club. “The result, I’m afraid, has been a lot of talk, and not nearly enough progress.”

The provinces for example have responsibility for training and they may be skeptical about the federal government trying to enter that arena. But because skills development is a national priority the federal government has to play a national role, he said.

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