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The uproar over the federal government's temporary foreign worker program exposed a disturbing workplace undercurrent.

Too many employers would rather import workers than train their own.

Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce economist Benjamin Tal says he often talks to chief executive officers about the skills dilemma. And what he hears are sentiments such as: "I'm not in the business of training. I'm in the business of making a profit."

Mr. Tal doesn't blame employers, particularly smaller ones.

"The job market of today is much more mobile," he argued. "You spend $20,000 training them, and the minute you do, they leave."

That perspective is more than an outlier. The era when organizations scooped up waves of recent university graduates and ran them through formal training programs is vanishing. And it's not just because the world is mired in a slow-growth, post-recessionary funk.

Something more permanent is happening. Organizations have outsourced or eliminated many of the entry-level jobs that were once stepping stones for young workers, such as receptionists and mail room clerks.

And forget about trainees. Few companies even have them any more.

The trend has moved up the value chain into once-core functions in white-collar workplaces, such as accounting, information technology and human resources.

By design or by accident, many employers are outsourcing their training capacity altogether – to foreign countries, competitors, governments, as well as colleges and universities.

"To expect business to bring graduates up to speed, that's too much to ask," Richard Stephens, Boeing Co.'s senior vice-president of human resources, bluntly acknowledged recently to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a Washington, D.C.-based trade publication.

Instead, the aerospace giant ranks colleges based on the quality of the students they send to Boeing. And then it dangles internships and job opportunities to get those universities to cater their programs and courses specifically to Boeing's needs.

That arrangement may well suit Boeing. But it's hard to imagine that universities channelling the needs of individual employers is the answer to any country's skills problem, particularly one with an economy as diverse as Canada's.

If employers everywhere exit the training business, the country has a far more serious skills problem than anyone imagined.

A poll of more than 700 employers commissioned by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace radio program found that what organizations value most are basic workplace skills. They want graduates who can communicate well, size up and solve problems, lead, and make sound decisions.

Those are precisely the sorts of generic, but vital, skills fostered by many liberal arts programs. And yet these programs are often maligned by business leaders and policy experts, who decry the surplus of overeducated university grads when the economy needs plumbers and welders.

There is a clear disconnect between what universities think they're delivering and what employers say they're getting. Business, naturally, wants fully formed employees, ready to step in and become instant producers.

Educational institutions see their mandate as being much broader than a "feeder system for the Fortune 500," as University of Ottawa president and former federal Liberal cabinet minister Allan Rock put it in a recent speech.

Basic workplace skills are central to what universities do best, according to Mr. Rock. "These are skills that will make [students] valuable, adaptable employees," he said.

He firmly rejected the Boeing model, cautioning that universities are not trade schools or "a farm team for big league business."

Enter the federal government with its Canada Jobs Grant Program, which aims to provide as many as 130,000 low-skilled workers with $15,000 each to retrain, starting next April.

At best, the jobs grant is a partial solution, in spite of a barrage of government TV ads. Only $5,000 would come from Ottawa, with employers and the provinces picking up the rest.

It could just as easily be no solution at all. Most provinces are so far balking at joining because it will mean less federal cash for the programs they already offer.

In the end, nothing governments or universities do will matter if employers don't do their part.

Follow Barrie McKenna on Twitter: @barriemckennaOpens in a new window

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