Ottawa is offering to make it easier for small businesses to take part in its proposed Canada Job Grant by allowing "mom-and-pop" firms to pay less money than larger ones to access the program.
Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced this detail of the grant at a lunch-hour speech Tuesday in Toronto's financial district, as he promised more "flexibility" to get reluctant provinces onside with the program. He also challenged provinces to show some flexibility on their end as he prepares to meet his provincial colleagues one-on-one over the coming weeks, ahead of a group meeting on the grant in early November.
The aim of the grant is to match training to the needs of employers, with Ottawa, a province and an employer all contributing up to $5,000 toward the cost of preparing a worker for an available job.
The provinces, however, have threatened to boycott the program because it diverts $300-million of a $500-million transfer that is specifically aimed at training "under-represented" groups who are not eligible for Employment Insurance, including aboriginals, disabled people and immigrants. Ontario's Training Minister Brad Duguid has said it is "inappropriate" for Ottawa to cut back on funding for vulnerable Canadians to pay for a new grant.
The premiers have also raised concerns that smaller companies will not be able to afford to take part in the grant.
On Tuesday, Mr. Kenney tried to calm some of those fears. He said the one-third contribution from businesses would be an average, meaning that small companies could pay less than that total while larger companies would pay more.
"We're flexible about the precise ratios," he said. "We've listened to business groups, employers saying to us: 'Look, the micro-businesses, the really small mom-and-pop, owner-operated stores, they can't necessarily afford to put up one-third of the money for the training costs.' On the other hand, the big companies can afford to put in a lot more."
He said he's willing to negotiate over the details of the program when he sits down with the provinces.
The possibility of a special arrangement for small businesses was welcome news to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which had requested the concession.
But Dan Kelly, the CFIB president, disputes provincial claims that their existing programs are successful and said it wouldn't be a bad thing if Mr. Kenney follows through on a threat to run the program without the provinces if no deal can be reached.
"I suspect the feds will end up going on their own and that may end up being the best thing," he said.
Mr. Kenney is so far refusing to budge on the size of the provincial transfers that will be reduced to pay for Ottawa's share of the grants. He said some of the programs the provinces are trying to protect simply are not working.
"I think some are working, I think some have good results. I think some are not working and have poor results," he said.
While Ottawa will continue offering its own programs for target groups like youth and aboriginals, Mr. Kenney said a new approach is needed.
"Too much of the spending on public job training is training for the sake of training," he said. "There are only so many times you can teach someone how to prepare a resume, how to dress for an interview and to set their alarm clock in the morning – important as those things are."