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Southern Alberta Institute of Technology Petroleum Engineering Technology students in Calgary have taken an emulsion sample.

SAIT

The Canada Job Grant has been billed as a new boon in skills training. But colleges aren't so sure.

It should be the perfect fit, with the federal and provincial governments providing new financial assistance to entice employers to get more workers trained. Skills-teaching, especially in industry-relevant areas, is, of course, the raison d'être of colleges.

Yet, most of the college community is taking a wait-and-see approach to the new grant program. Why?

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Part of the caution stems from the moment the grant was first announced last year. There was considerable early criticism from provinces, concerned that the funding was being siphoned off from other programs already in place. That cautious tone has continued as the grant has slowly been introduced province by province.

"I think it's a bit early to be able to tell what the implications of the Canada Job Grant are for colleges in general – and the extent to which [colleges] are finding it positive or negative, or the extent to which they're changing the way they're working," said Wendy Therrien, vice-president of government relations and Canadian partnerships at Colleges and Institutes Canada, an organization representing colleges across the country.

The general complaint provincially was that the Canada Job Grant was merely a new, federal layer of administration taking money away from existing provincial programs. In turn, colleges are now seeing how this might have an impact on the pre-existing funding relationships already long in place between colleges, employers and provinces.

With the Canada Job Grant, Ottawa kicks in a third of the education cost, the province a third, and employers foot the final third. The program is administered separately by the provinces. (So, for instance in Alberta, the program is the Canada-Alberta Job Grant.)

Still, SAIT Polytechnic, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, is one college that has gone the extra step of highlighting the new grant in its outreach to employers. Most other colleges have treated the new grant as just one of many options for employers and students.

As Patrick Weinmayr, director of products and partnerships at SAIT Polytechnic, said, "In our understanding of the job grants and seeing what it's trying to promote, it is directly aligning with the kind of programming that SAIT offers.

"So the way we're looking at the Job Grant is that it's a really good opportunity for employers and employees to increase the number of courses or increase the number of staff that can actually get trained for the same price," he said.

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SAIT has a website aimed at employers to promote the grant. It SAIT's website lists eligible programs of study, from coursework in petroleum and power engineering linked directly to Alberta's oil-patch economy, to construction, business administration and other skills.

To qualify, the program has to be at least 25 hours, and a student has to complete it in a year. Mr. Weinmayr speculated that more students under the grant will be employed workers sent back to pick up new skills, rather than new hires.

"We have tailored some of the programs. We had a few programs that were less than 25 hours, so we actually have combined a few of the programs to be eligible. And that's at some of the employers' requests," Mr. Weinmayr said. "But I'd say that the vast majority of the programs that we offer in our continuing education and in our corporate-training departments are already eligible."

"What we're trying to do is help employers with the process of applying for the job grant," he added, "and understanding what qualifies for the grant. It's really just making it easier for them to get their employers engaged in the training process."

However, besides the question of how employers and students may rely on this new grant rather than existing ones, there's also the question of how this may effect the curriculum or enrolment in colleges.

Ms. Therrien of Colleges and Institutes Canada noted that this is "one of the advantages of being in a college. They often create tailored programs to respond to tailored needs, or they adjust existing programs to respond to changes in the local market."

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She cautions, though, that there are many factors related to how quickly colleges can react to immediate skill needs in the economy.

"Sometimes what you're seeing isn't necessarily a question of what is offered in the courses, but also where the supply of students is versus the demand in the economy, and issues of mobility and issues of recognition of credentials held in other provinces," she said. "So there are multiple layers. When you have a gap [in skills training or enrolment] is it a question of curriculum, or is it a question of labour market shortages? It's complicated."

Jen Donofrio, director of strategic enrolment management at Olds College, also in Alberta, suggested that the job grant will not be a new boon for employer-college contact, because that tie is already there.

"We're connected to industry partnerships across the board, because we have to be. Our programs are directly serving the industry," she said. "That's the way we survive. That's the way we function."

The bulk of Olds's students are under 21, yet most have a strong sense of what field they are heading into and already have a clear indication of employers and the jobs available. "In a lot of our programs, it's even built into our admissions process, where you have to do a career investigation," Ms. Donofrio said.

"We work really closely with Alberta Works, which is our provincial body that disperses that [job-training] money. There are lots of completion grants in Alberta, so there are lots of ways that students can come here, get their schooling and receive some form of reimbursement. There are definitely options available to students," she noted.

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Whether the Canada Job Grant will be effective in increasing colleges' ability to work with industry to boost relevant skills training, "it's just too early for us to say that," Ms. Therrien said.

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