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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, operates a plate roller as Diane Finley, Minister of Human Rseources and Skills Development, and worker Sunil Bagga look on during a visit to the Brannon Steel plant in Brampton, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, operates a plate roller as Diane Finley, Minister of Human Rseources and Skills Development, and worker Sunil Bagga look on during a visit to the Brannon Steel plant in Brampton, Ont. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

It’s time for Ottawa to walk the talk on skills training Add to ...

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty thinks the provinces are wasting $2-billion in federal funding to support worker training, and says skills training will be “a priority of the budget.”

While employers tend to exaggerate the real extent of skills and labour shortages, there is no doubt that dealing with the growing issue of “jobs without people” is of central importance.

We can all agree that it is incredibly wasteful in both economic and human terms for good jobs to go unfilled due to a lack of workers with the right skills, especially at a time of high unemployment and underemployment for far too many young people, aboriginals and recent immigrants.

But actions by the Harper government to date have undermined key building blocks of a national training strategy.

As I have argued before in Economy Lab, Canada desperately needs an up-to-date labour market information system that identifies genuine skill shortages by detailed occupation and by region.

Such an information base is essential if we are to train unemployed workers in skills that are in demand; if we are to run our immigration system with a closer eye to labour market needs; if we are to encourage postsecondary institutions to deliver more job-market-relevant programs; and if we are to provide accurate information to young people on where they are most likely to find good jobs.

But we just do not have that needed information base. The current Job Vacancy Survey conducted by Statistics Canada tells us that there are currently some 250,000 job vacancies reported by employers, but it is not possible to produce a detailed breakdown by occupation with further detail by province or region.

This absence of key labour market information was highlighted by the comprehensive Don Drummond report to federal and provincial labour market ministers in 2009 and, more recently, by the constructive all-party report on labour and skills shortages issued by the House of Commons human resources committee last December.

Far from helping the situation, Mr. Flaherty’s spending cuts in the last federal budget led to the cancellation of government funding for a planned Statistics Canada workplace survey in 2012 that would have filled much of the information gap.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has strongly endorsed the importance not just of information but of institutions that bring together all of the labour market partners, including governments, employers, unions and postsecondary institutions.

Far from heeding this advice, the 2012 budget eliminated core funding for multistakeholder national sector councils, such as the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, that identify emerging skills shortages and communicate the information widely to a range of stakeholders. This followed the earlier abolition by the Harper government of the Canadian Council on Learning that brought together a wide range of actors to improve learning, including adult education and training programs.

Nor has this federal government – or its predecessor – promoted effective provincial approaches to active labour market policies.

While Mr. Flaherty seems to think that the provinces are doing a poor job of spending federal training funds, it is closer to the mark to say that performance is mixed. Many informed observers would argue that Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have generally done well, due in large part to the fact that they have tried to fill information gaps and have developed their policies and programs in close consultation with the labour market partners.

It is a good thing that Mr. Flaherty is focused on training issues. But he will have to change his approach if we are to move forward.

Andrew Jackson is the Packer Professor of Social Justice at York University and senior policy adviser to the Broadbent Institute.

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