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A FutureSkills Lab could be the Liberals' key to improve job training

If there's one aspect of economic policy that politicians keep coming back to it is job training. Nearly every recent government has found itself seeking the magic formula training up its citizenry to full employment and a singing economy.

It's never quite so easy to bottle the magic. So governments often liked to wrap their spiffy new training initiatives in a bit of branding. The Conservatives sold theirs as the Canada Job Grant.

Now, the Liberal government's Advisory Council on Economic Growth is proposing a FutureSkills Lab. That's capital F, no space, capital S, Lab. It would be an independent organization that would be created to sort out, measure and improve a plethora of training programs. Somebody at the council decided their idea, too, was best served up with a slogan.

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But marketing aside, there are a lot of reasons why more effective job training, and what this report calls "reskilling," is an elusive beast that governments keep trying to catch. It's what the advisory council says about that, and some of the ideas behind the "FutureSkills" idea, that matter.

The Advisory Council, chaired by McKinsey and Co. managing director Dominic Barton, was tasked with coming up with ideas to improve growth, starting from the notion that Canada faces years of relatively lacklustre GDP growth. The council's diagnosis includes a worry that labour force participation is growing slowly; one driver of higher growth in the past was women entering the work force in greater numbers.

The council argues that Canada could generate more growth if it could get more people from certain demographic groups into the work force: indigenous Canadians, mothers of school-age kids, people aged 55 to 65, and "low-income, low-skill" workers. The report estimates that increasing the proportion of people aged 55 to 69 in the work force to match some other OECD countries could add 2.8 per cent to GDP; doing the same for the low-income, low-skill category could add 1.9 per cent. It's a sizable boost, and the report argues better access to job training is one way to make it happen.

Training programs, the report argues, will also help workers adapt to the disruption that will come in a future of rapid technological change.

It's not hard to see why governments want it to work. Training is one of the few things they can provide to someone out of work, or to soothe the fears of the many people who worry they might be out of work one day – as long as people think it works. And, as the council argues, they could help to boost the economy.

But there are training programs. Ottawa and the provinces spend billions on them each year. They are run in a hodge-podge, often delivered by provincial programs, many funded by employment-insurance dollars. And it's not always clear what's effective and what's not.

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The Advisory Council's "FutureSkills Lab," if you ignore the name, has some interesting ideas. It would be an independent organization that would pit together a bunch of pilot training programs, get co-financing for them from governments, business and unions – and measure them. It could use innovative methods to gather information about labour market needs. Most importantly, it would try to rigorously measure the outcomes.

There are skeptics. Miana Plesca, a University of Guelph economist, said the government has typically done poorly at predicting future labour market needs. And it can take time to judge outcomes. Past research suggested employer-initiated training programs were effective, but government skills training was not; she said the research indicates the benefits of government skills training for people taking on new jobs or careers tend to show up over a longer time period of several years.

And then there's jurisdiction. Most job training programs are often delivered by provinces – the idea of Ottawa funnelling their efforts into a new independent national organization seems like another elusive political dream.

But politicians might do well to read the report for a reminder of the importance of getting training right, and a couple of key points that don't require magic: getting training programs away from the politics and measuring to see what works and what doesn't.

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