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john ibbitson

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is seen in a Feb. 8, 2013 file photo.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

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Stephen Harper wants to improve labour training in Canada. But how?

The Prime Minister surely can't want to take responsibility for skills training away from the provincial governments. And it's not in his political nature to order them about.

Yet Thursday's budget, we are told, will tackle the vexed problem of filling hundreds of thousands of jobs vacancies with workers who currently lack the necessary skills.

One answer that has been kicked around the halls of power: vouchers.

The Harper government sees things this way: Canada's future economy relies on natural resources, financial services, high-end manufacturing and other sectors that require workers with specific skills.

Yet schools point too many students toward programs of study in the humanities and social sciences, which best fits them for jobs in retail.

Workers in seasonal industries subsist on Employment Insurance much of the year, far removed from where the jobs are, and lacking the necessary skills in any case.

The aboriginal population is a potentially valuable pool of labour, but wretched schools on reserves keep too many of them from finding meaningful work.

And provincial governments waste federal funds for labour training by failing to identify shortages and tailor their programs to meet those shortages.

Solutions involve streaming students towards science and math, applied arts, engineering and technology and skilled trades.

(Your correspondent, with degrees in humanities and social sciences, would not long survive in such a world.)

Robust immigration can make up for some of the skills shortages. And of course, labour training programs could actually do the job of training labour.

The federal government is mostly responsible for immigration, but education and labour training are provincial responsibilities. So what is to be done?

Ottawa could cancel the federal-provincial agreements and centralize training programs. But as most Conservatives are quick to point out, the federal government is, and always has been, incompetent at program delivery. Want proof? Think of how it has looked after the needs of first nations, or managed the Atlantic fishery, or handled military procurement.

No, better to give the money to the provinces, who know the needs of their own people.

An alternative is to strike stricter deals with the provinces, tying federal funding to actual results in finding jobs for workers. That will require contentious negotiations with the provincial governments, something that Mr. Harper, who prizes harmonious relations with provinces, would generally rather avoid.

One idea that was being kicked around in recent months involved giving workers vouchers, which they could spend on publicly or privately provided job training, tuition for a return to school or any other program that they felt best suited them.

Thursday's budget will like offer less radical measures. But the Conservatives are determined to make a dent in the problem of jobs without people and people without jobs.

Thursday we'll hear how they plan to go about it.

John Ibbitson is The Globe and Mail's chief political writer in Ottawa.