Federal efforts to calm anxiety about a rapidly changing job market took another step Thursday as the Liberals launched a new agency ahead of a federal budget that will put a heavy focus on skills training.
The new “Future Skills Centre” job training centre – run by Ryerson University, The Conference Board of Canada and Blueprint ADE – is to advise the federal government on how to prepare workers for digital shifts in the job market and help workers make decisions about how to develop the in-demand skills they’ll need to land and maintain good jobs.
The Liberals are hoping for early wins from the arm’s-length agency, which will be part think-tank and part lab to test ideas big and small, so Canadians can see tangible results from what risks being seen as an academic exercise.
“My hope is the sooner we can actually talk about specific projects, or specific pilots, the better we can bring it alive for Canadians in terms of what this investment means for their children’s future, for their own future,” Labour Minister Patty Hajdu said in an telephone interview.
At the same time, Canada’s labour minister says she is looking at ways to get workers to use skills-training programs routinely, as part of their normal working lives, rather than waiting for a layoff or work crisis.
The question, as always, revolves around money: how much can the public purse handle and how much is needed for any measure to work.
“We’d have to ask ourselves, what actually would make a meaningful change to Canadians and is that enough to incent people to use the benefit?” Hajdu said.
She said the government would look at data from other G7 nations to see whether things like a tax credit for taking training in new skills “actually does result in people able to re-enter education or skills training.”
Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said the government should consider using the employment-insurance system to give workers funding and a right to take time off to upgrade or learn new skills. He said some employers do a good job of funding training for their employees, but most only “talk a good line.”
“We have to take the whole skills agenda from a different angle,” he said during a wide-ranging interview with The Canadian Press. “People want to improve their skills. The question is when and how and who pays for it.”
The percentage of Canadian workers researchers say are at high risk of being affected by automation over the next two decades varies from nine to 42 per cent, depending on the study.
Federal officials who have spent years looking at the issue aren’t sure if the disruption in the labour force they’re expecting from smarter computers and robots will create enough jobs to replace the ones that are likely to be lost.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said his upcoming budget – expected mid-March – will include money to help workers adapt and retrain. On Thursday, he told reporters in Toronto he didn’t think spending for training would “be over in budget 2019 or in budget 2020,” but “an ongoing discussion.”
The new think-tank in Toronto is to help with projects led by provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments as well as for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
The Liberals have committed $225 million over four years for the arm’s-length agency, starting this fiscal year, and $75 million annually afterwards.
A June briefing note to the top official at the Finance Department noted the government was eyeing a December 2018 launch date for the centre, and expected to have some early ideas in hand by next month from its advisory council.