Canada reaping the bitter harvest of the jobs-without-skills gap

Rather than quibble over parochial politics, premiers and territorial leaders need to start to work together

The new National Job Training Program which replaces the Federal Job Grant was panned by provincial and territorial leaders at their recent meeting in Niagara-On-The-Lake.

The announcement – which followed a federal review that showed most of the Job Grant funding was used in ways that offered little or no potential to ease the critical shortage of in-demand skills facing the country – was presaged in a speech by then Federal Minister of Human Resources and Skills Diane Finley, who compared the growing “skills without jobs . . . jobs without skills gap” to a person with an ear to the track listening for the train: “Well folks, it’s time to stop listening for the train because it’s bearing down upon us”.

Business leaders agree. A recent Canadian Council of Chief Executives report stated that Canada is falling behind in the global skills race and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce estimates that, by 2016, there will be 550,000 persons unable to find work and at least as many post-secondary graduates working in low skills jobs. At the same time, there will be 1.5 million skilled job vacancies, and from there the gap will continue to widen.

The Niagara gathering was an opportunity for provincial and territorial leaders to work together on a unified national plan that would mitigate this sobering outlook. How unfortunate then, that rather than discussing solutions to the skills problem they chose to focus entirely on protection of their parochial right to spend the federal grant money as they please. Yet the problems, and the potential solutions, are almost entirely in provincial hands.

Take skilled trade apprenticeship as one very important example. On-the-job
apprenticeship training is essential for those enrolled in one of Canada’s 150 designated skilled trades. OECD data shows that countries with the highest apprenticeship participation rates have the lowest youth unemployment. Germany, with its widely acclaimed educator/employer “dual training system”, has Europe’s lowest youth unemployment and second lowest in the OECD at just 8 per cent. Over half of German post- secondary students enter apprenticeship programmes.

Meanwhile, apprentices make up just 2 per cent of Canada’s labour force and finding a training placement can be a major challenge. The disconnected 13
provincial/territorial regulatory structure means that apprentices who find employment in another jurisdiction may not have their previous experience recognized, forcing them to either start at square one or give up their dream of achieving journey-person status. And a recent C.D. Howe Institute study found that provincial regulations requiring an employer to have more than one journey-person for every trainee reduces apprenticeship opportunities in the small firms that form the backbone of apprenticeship employment.

Our ad-hoc apprenticeship structure is also failing to keep pace with rapid
technological change. One example is “mechatronics technician”, a highly skilled occupation that combines mechanical, electrical, instrumentation and robotics. It is already recognized in Europe, but not here. Canadian employers wishing to train mechatronics apprentices would be unable to access any government funding programs, while individuals completing the training would not be granted any credential. Andy Cleven, Director for the Joint Training Committee in Coquitlam, B.C. states; “Although apprenticeships are meant to meet national standards, that’s not easy with 13 jurisdictions developing different plans for the same trade. Imagine how messed up it can become”.

Of course, even with a cohesive national apprenticeship strategy, apprentices still need to find an employer willing to provide that needed on-the-job training. Many potential employers are reluctant to do so due to the administrative costs of complying with regulatory requirements, perceived mentor productivity reduction and disruption from periodic academic semesters.

A non-profit group called the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum has set out to change employers’ views. Their surveys show that revenue increases by $1.47 for each dollar invested in apprenticeship training. And interviews with skilled tradespersons reveal that most “jump at the chance” to pass on their knowledge and having a helper actually makes them more productive, not less.

History shows this has long been the case. As far back as the 18th Century BC, the Code of Hammurabi obliged Babylonian craftsmen to pass on their skills to the next generation. The bottom line is, unless employers do their part to develop new skilled trades-persons, they will reap a bitter harvest of accelerating skills shortages.

The task is vital and the hour is late. Rather than quibble over parochial politics, our premiers and territorial leaders should be working together to create a cohesive national trades apprenticeship system.
Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian business leader who has been a director of five global corporations.

Column supplied by Troy Media,

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