Ottawa shelving million-dollar job app for veterans

A searchable online program and app meant to help soldiers make a smoother transition to civilian life, which cost the federal government $1.1 million just over a year ago, will be mothballed at the end of the month, CBC News has learned.

Federal government chose to go with private company over charity

The searchable online program was designed to connect soldiers exiting the service with potential employers. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

A searchable online program and app meant to help soldiers make a smoother transition to civilian life, which cost the federal government $1.1 million just over a year ago, will be mothballed at the end of the month, CBC News has learned.

The decommissioning of the METPathfinder system comes after the Liberal government decided to hire a private firm to assist ex-military members in their quest for new careers.

The software, smartphone app and the intellectual property associated with the program belong to a non-profit charity — the Canada Company — according to a senior official with the company, which was performing the service until it lost a tender bid last fall.

The Oshawa, Ont.-based human resources firm Agilec — which was quietly awarded a $10.3 million contract last December to provide employment services to ex-military members — was given the opportunity to take over the system, but turned it down.

"We had offered it to Agilec," said Blake Goldring, chief executive officer of Canada Company, "but they are busy setting up their own system, which is fine."

Program praised by government

Federal investment in the software was announced with much fanfare on Nov. 15, 2016, and hailed at the time by then Veterans Affairs minister Kent Hehr as a "tremendous example of government and the private sector working together towards better outcomes for veterans."

The cash came from Employment and Social Development Canada's sectoral initiatives program, which aims to address current and future labour skills shortages.

Canada Company used the money to create a database and an online tool to connect veterans to existing high-demand, private-sector jobs and compatible educational upgrade programs.

It also used the funding to create a digital map of military occupations and how they plug into the civilian world.  

"The program will be effectively mothballed as of [March] 31st," said Goldring in response to questions from CBC News.

Agilec was asked for comment, but referred questions to Veterans Affairs.

The department's deputy minister, retired general Walt Natynczyk, assured a Senate committee on Wednesday that the move to the new company is going smoothly.

"Work done by the Military Employment Transition (MET) is being transferred across in a very cooperative way," he said.

"All of the work that our teams have done together will go, in terms of that skills translator, so that we actually have all of those tools as Agilec takes over on this responsibility."

Natynczyk was not, however, referring to Canada Company.

Veterans Affairs and National Defence took a stab at developing their own in-house skills translator program — known as MNET.

It had its own set of databases and search tools, but was not considered as comprehensive as the one developed by Canada Company.

A spokesman for Veteran Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan said Agilec demonstrated it is able to provide a wide range of services for veterans.

Alex Wellstead said the company will be able to access the government's MNET skills translator. He did not address the impending lost investment in the Canada Company system.

"The MET Pathfinder Tool, this was a tool designed to allow ‎employers to search for employees, a function that Agelic is able to do."

A former senior Veterans Affairs official said developing a skills translator is something the department had wanted to do for years, and the METPathfinder contract represented an important milestone.

Some ex-soldiers struggle to find work

"Many trades and occupations are easy to convert, engineers and all that stuff," said retired lieutenant-general Walter Semianiw. "It's harder, in particular for infantry, armoured and artillery."

Developing a skills translator was considered the "holy grail" of the department's efforts to improve transition services, he said.

Veterans Affairs did look at a proposal from the online job board service Monster Canada, which had its own skills translation software, but decided not to pursue a pitch from the company.

Making sure veterans have jobs to go to and a steady income post-service is a key element in tackling both the homeless crisis among ex-soldiers and mental health issues that can lead to suicide, said Semianiw.

On Wednesday, O'Regan emphasized the importance of finding work for veterans in his testimony before the Senate alongside Natynczyk.

"We are actually getting into a position where we can work with corporations and interested companies from across the country in finding work and helping veterans translate their experience and skill sets into civilian life, in a meaningful way," O'Regan said.

Over 300 companies were listed in the online tool that's now being deactivated.

Semianiw said he hopes the company and the government won't have to start from square one.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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