Premiers take aim at Harper's new job training plan

Job training appears to be one of the most contentious issues on the table as Canada's premiers meet today in Niagara-on-the-Lake for their semi-annual get-together. At stake is a possible jurisdictional battle with Ottawa that could go on for months and threatens to cloud the issue even more.

At stake is a possible jurisdictional fight that could go on for months

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, left, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, centre, and Quebec Premier Pauline Marois attended a meeting with aboriginal leaders on Wednesday ahead of the premiers gathering in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. (Aaron Lynett/Canadian Press)

Job training appears to be one of the most contentious issues on the table as Canada's premiers meet today in Niagara-on-the-Lake for their semi-annual get-together. At stake is a possible jurisdictional battle with Ottawa that could go on for months and threatens to cloud the issue even more.

Several provincial leaders have already vowed to fight the $900-million Canada Job Grant plan announced without consultation in the March federal budget, upset both at Ottawa's move into a provincial domain and the added cost of the program to their own coffers.

At the same time, Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, a group whose members are largely overlooked by the plan, says he hopes these provinces set their initial reactions aside and try to come up with ways to make the proposal work.

"I think that they have to take off their parochial hats," said Kelly, and start thinking about "how do we make sure the dollars go to training."

That approach, however, won't be easy. In June, a report by the University of Toronto's Mowat Centre and the Caledon Institute of Social Policy called the Canada Job Grant plan a "slap in the face" for provinces and territories — and referred to the proposal as "deeply flawed."

"The Canada Job Grant represents an aggressive federal foray into an area which had been recognized over the last quarter century as within provincial jurisdiction," the report stated.

It also argued that the program will be a windfall for employers who already invest in skills training, and would, in effect, amount to subsidizing what already exists without creating new jobs.

Meanwhile, it will miss the large number of Canada's private sector employees who work at small- and medium-sized businesses, like the kind represented by the CFIB. These companies don't usually have the capacity to organize a training program and typically rely on informal, on-the-job training.

Bigger role for business

Kelly says small and medium-sized firms represent 60 per cent of the total employment in Canada and are often the first training grounds for employees.

And while the proposed plan doesn't currently address small businesses, Kelly says it holds the kind of promise that shouldn't be ignored.

"The piece that I like the best about the Canada Job Grant is that it involves employers in a far more fundamental way in the training process … than ever before," he said.

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced the new Canada Job Grant in the 2013 budget without, provinces said, much in the way of advance consultation. (Canadian Press)

Slated to begin in April 2014, the federal government vows that the grants program will train 130,000 Canadians each year once fully implemented.

The program would work by providing cash grants for short-term training, sponsored by employers, for those who are unemployed or underemployed.

Sponsoring organizations would have to allot up to $5,000 in funds themselves, then both the federal and provincial governments would kick in matching cash grants.

However, the new program would take $300 million out of funds that have annually gone to the provinces over the past six years through what was called Labour Market Agreements, an arrangement that allowed each province to tailor-make its own job-training program.

It also expects provinces to put up $300 million of their own in matching funds, money that could force them to cut established programs, some premiers have said.

"The reality is, if they give you $10, take back $6 and then want you to match the $6, there is a problem because you're short," Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said in an interview Wednesday evening with CBC TV's Power & Politics host Evan Solomon.

'Mystery program'

Nearly 1.4 million Canadians don't have a job — and there are more than 220,000 vacant positions, according to the most recent Statistics Canada figures. That means that, in theory, there are six unemployed people for each job.

Figuring out how to find the right workers to fill those posts, however, is no easy task. For the past two decades, the federal government devolved responsibility for labour market training to the provinces, a natural fit since education falls under their mandate as well.

With the Canada Job Grant, however, the federal government aims to take back at least some of the control it used to wield.

Back in the 1980s, when André Juneau worked in the federal government's employment ministry, there was a huge local and regional bureaucracy to administer federal job programs, he recalls. But that's been dismantled.

"How will it be able to deliver [the plan]? How will it be able to monitor what a business does? How will it be involved in identifying workers who need the training?" asked Juneau, who is now director of Queen's University's Institute of Intergovernmental Relations.

"I don't know. And the government hasn't said anything about this."

The Canada Job Grant is what Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter has called a "mystery program." Nova Scotia is among several provinces — including Ontario and Quebec — that have expressed opposition to the plan.

In Alberta, where the estimated cost of not filling vacant jobs in the province is expected to hit $33 billion over four years, according to a new study by University of Alberta's Institute for Public Economics, the response has been less critical.

"We’re very supportive of making sure it's a fair program," Premier Alison Redford told reporters this week.

In his interview with CBC's Evan Solomon Wednesday, Selinger acknowledged that the federal government has a role to play to encourage labour mobility and job matches across the country, as long as they allow for flexibility to address regional markets.

Not everyone has been critical. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce and several sectors with chronic shortages welcomed the Ottawa's new jobs plan with open arms.

Warren Everson, the Chamber of Commerce's senior vice-president of policy, has said that the jobs grant plan will take skills-training choices out of government hands and put them "where they belong, in the hands of employers and Canadians who want to work."

'Devil in the details'

Juneau notes that while job training has been a provincial domain in recent years, it's also a federal concern due to labour mobility, particularly in provinces such as Alberta where skilled workers come to work in the oil industry from across Canada.

He does note, however, that there is little research on how well provincial job programs have been doing — and what exactly needs to be done to help train the unemployed.

"What makes this more complicated is that labour market policy is far from a science. It's rare that policy is a science. But labour market policy is really a pretty approximate business," said Juneau.

"Governments would like to influence how labour markets work but it's very difficult to do so."

For his part, Kelly is actively pitching his ideas to both levels of government, and much of his focus is on getting more of the informal on-the-job informal training that small businesses do recognized under the plan.

He's hoping that the provincial leaders will also spend more time on brainstorming ideas than bickering over control.

"As always the devil's in the details. This has some potential if done properly but it could be a disaster if it turns into a federal-provincial fight or if they don't do it right."