Harper promises boost for retraining programs, work sharing

DIEPPE, N.B. — The Globe and Mail

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks at a campaign rally in St John's. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper is promising measures to preserve jobs and educate workers if re-elected, from extending programs that retrain older employees to encouraging work-sharing instead of layoffs.

The single biggest pledge is $420-million over two years to extend Employment Insurance pilot projects that help recipients find jobs while on benefits and aid those who can only obtain sporadic employment.

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The Conservative Leader stopped in Dieppe, N.B., Friday morning for a campaign rally with many of the party's candidates from across the province.

New Brunswick is still struggling with relatively more jobless than some other regions. The unemployment rate as of February in the province was 9.8 per cent, two points higher than the national average.

Mr. Harper visited Malley Industries, a specialty vehicle manufacturer in the Moncton area to unveil his promises, which total more than $600-million over two years.

"Our global economy is still fragile and too many Canadian workers are still looking for jobs," the Conservative Leader said.

"Our plan will support workers and job seekers in today's job market and provide them with the immediate assistance they need."

His job and training pledges take a page from the 2011 budget that was shelved after opposition parties defeated the Tory government March 2. The fiscal plan now serves as the mainstay of the Conservative campaign platform.

Promises include:

» Eliminating mandatory retirement for workers in federally-regulated sectors - such and transport and telecommunications.

» A $10-million extension for work-sharing funding that helped companies avoid layoffs by offering EI benefits to staff willing to work reduced hours as their company recovers. This would extend current or recently terminated work-sharing deals by up to 16 weeks.

» Beefing up the Canada Student Loan Program to increase the income threshold for loans and grants to part-time students and cutting interest rates charged in some cases so Canadians can study part time while working. This would amount to an extra $34.2-million per year.

» Another $420-million to renew two Employment Insurance pilot projects for another year.

The Working While On Claim project and the Best 14 Weeks project are currently set to expire in summer 2011. The first allows EI claimants to earn additional money working while receiving assistance. The second allows claimants in 25 higher-unemployment regions to receive enriched EI benefits calculated on the highest 14 weeks of earnings in the preceding year.

» Another $50-million to extend the Targeted Initiative for Older Workers until 2013-14. The federal-provincial program underwrites training and job opportunities for displaced older workers in areas with a population of less than 250,000.

» Expanding the Wage Earner Protection Program that would provides compensation of up to $3,400 in 2011 to workers for unpaid wages, vacation pay and severance if their company goes bankrupt.

Budget 2011 would also have extended this to workers who lost their jobs when a company's attempt at restructuring failed.

This would amount to about $4.5-million in annual support.

"These initiatives will help workers access additional training, support their families during periods of unemployment and collect money they are entitled to if their employer goes bankrupt," Mr. Harper said

In New Brunswick, the Conservatives are hoping to wrest Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe from the Liberals and are trying to defend three other ridings - Miramichi, Fredericton and Saint John from Liberal challenges.

The Tories had hoped that former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord would run for them in Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe but he recently deciding against standing.

Mr. Harper heads to Prince Edward Island later Friday for a rally in the riding of Malpeque in Covehead before jetting to Ottawa for a down day Saturday.

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