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The federal government is looking at ways to speed up the introduction of skills-training help for out-of-work Canadians, say groups involved in helping implement the program.

The training help was scheduled to arrive at the end of the year in the form of an annual tax credit and time off through the employment insurance system for workers that wanted to upgrade their skills, or learn something new to help their job hunt.

Promised in last year’s budget, the training benefit was the subject of intense discussions among senior government officials and post-secondary training institutions immediately before the current pandemic landed in Canada.

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Now, the conversations have turned to how to use the economic shutdown from COVID-19 as a catalyst to speed up the training benefit’s introduction, says Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada.

Groups say the thinking is how to get workers now stuck at home or out of work to take programs to prevent their skills from becoming rusty while they don’t use them regularly.

More than 2.1 million people have applied for EI in the last two weeks.

“It is a chance to upgrade your skills, to sharpen your skills, and, as we say, to be ready to help accelerate Canada in a recovery faster,” Davidson said in an interview.

Denise Amyot, president of Colleges and Institutes Canada, says the thinking is to prepare for after the pandemic and reduce the time needed for an economic recovery.

Also factoring into decisions, she says, is that not every business may make it through the sharp downturn the country is facing.

A recent survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business of the small- and medium-sized businesses it represents suggested about one-third that are closed due to COVID-19 aren’t sure that they’ll ever reopen their doors.

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Ms. Amyot said there is a need to measure which skills the economy will need after the public health response to ensure there isn’t a vacuum of skills.

“Right now, if we have jobs or businesses that are completely disappearing, it means we need to ensure that people are training for those jobs that will get through this pandemic,” Amyot said in a telephone interview.

“And we need measures that can be implemented quickly.”

She added that some workers may also be taking time at home to reconsider their career paths and may be looking at retraining options that can be done remotely.

“They don’t want to lose their skills so they’re looking for training opportunities,” she said, before adding that some skilled-trades training “is not that easy to do online.”

One big question is how to help workers who want it to pay for training, especially if federal help barely covers the cost of necessities.

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The Liberals’ pre-election budget last year put aside more than $1.7-bllion over five years to create a tax credit and pay for dedicated time off for workers to take skills-training programs. It was aimed to be in place by December 2020.

Canadian workers earning between $10,000 and about $150,000 a year would receive an annual $250 refundable tax credit, accumulating over time, to offset the costs of learning new job skills.

The idea was to help workers throughout their careers to adapt to changes within their chosen fields, or to help them acquire a whole new skill set to change professions. Some of the thinking behind it was to avoid some of the negative ripples from automation.

Federal policymakers weren’t considering a sudden downturn when they drafted the program. The program also envisioned a tuition component, but the change in circumstances may give governments a chance to see if there’s a way to step in with some help, Davidson said.

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