Ottawa appears unprepared to alter job training approach
An internal document suggests Ottawa is preparing to push ahead with key features of its controversial skills-training initiative, despite provincial opposition and calls for flexibility.
The nine-page federal document — entitled "An Offer to Provinces and Territories to Transform and Renew the Labour Market Agreements, and Implement the Canada Job Grant" — was sent to at least one province recently. It appears to retain all the elements of the proposal set out in the March budget.
The document claims it builds on consultations with "stakeholder groups" in May and June, and says Ottawa is "looking to discuss the detailed design" with the provinces.
"As soon as possible, the Government of Canada will arrange a bilateral meeting to discuss the elements of the proposal in more detail and initiate negotiations toward new agreements as quickly as possible to ensure they are in place by April 1, 2014," says the draft, obtained by The Canadian Press.
The offer also makes one clear demand of the provinces and territories — that they give the federal government credit for the program once it is in place.
"P/Ts will be expected to ... publicly acknowledge the Government of Canada's contribution, including the Canada Job Grant."
The Harper government made the $900-million Canada Job Grant the centrepiece of its March budget. The finance minister argued that fundamental changes were required in provincially run job-training programs because many employers were having difficulty finding workers with the right skills.
Despite the criticism, and with no program in place, the government spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads extolling the merits of the program.
The opposition NDP has accused the government of adopting a "divide and conquer" strategy, quoting a media report that the document was sent to a few western provinces, likely to be sympathetic, but not others.
The objective of the initiative is to match training with available jobs by offering a grant of up to $15,000 to employers for training for each employee, with the cost shared equally between Ottawa, the province or territory, and the employer.
The provinces immediately objected to federal intrusion into provincial jurisdiction.
Provinces are also balking at Ottawa forcing them to put up $300 million from their own budgets while it was also withdrawing $300 million in transfers from existing training programs — a double cash whammy for fiscally challenged provinces.
As well, they objected to the lack of prior consultation.
Premiers to discuss skills training
Canada's premiers meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., this week have pledged to fight the initiative as currently drafted. At the very least, they are demanding that Ottawa allow for a fully compensated opt-out clause and that it jettison the requirement for provincial financing.
A report from the Caledon Institute of Social Policy also criticized the federal approach, noting that it calls on provinces to "cancel their own ground-tested programs and then to expect them to find substantial new funding from their own budgets to pay for an untested new federal program in an area of provincial jurisdiction."
The institute called the program "deeply flawed public policy (that is) likely to deliver inferior results," noting that large companies are likely to take both the federal and provincial grants for training they would have done in any case.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has expressed concerns that small firms will be unable to take advantage of the program if the application process is onerous, although president Dan Kelly said he is in favour of involving employers directly in the training process.
He called some of the current training programs offered by provinces "abysmal" and useless to employers.
A spokeswoman for Jason Kenney, who last week was appointed the new minister for employment and social development, said the job grant has been "widely praised by a variety of employer groups."
Ottawa would discuss implementation with the provinces over the summer and fall, she said, but added she can't discuss substantive issues because the new minister is still being briefed.
The document suggests any flexibility would need to take place within the broad parameters already outlined in the budget, calling the Canada Job Grant the "centrepiece" of the renewal of federal-provincial Labour Market Agreements.
Ottawa is offering to renew its $500-million Labour Market Agreements with the provinces and territories for four years, starting next April, it says.
But by the fourth year, 60 per cent of that transfer will go to the implementation of the Canada Job Grant, leaving only $200 million to be run as the provinces see fit.
Among the requirements, Ottawa is demanding that provinces spend their full allocation each year, that they provide "independently audited financial statements" within six months of each fiscal period, and report to Ottawa annually on plans, activities to minimize administrative burden, and results.
The plan is open to employers, but also to industry associations and trade unions.
Ottawa claims once fully implemented, the grants could help train 130,000 Canadians a year.
"The Government of Canada will use P/T information to report nationally on results of investments," it adds.