Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Provinces reject federal Canada Jobs Grant program

The Edmonton Journal is reporting today that the provinces have declined to participate in the federal government’s Canada Jobs Grants initiative announced in the spring budget. This is the program that the feds advertised during the hockey playoffs that didn’t yet (and may never) exist

The basics of the CJG program are that the feds, the province and an employer would each contribute $5000 (for a total of $15,000) that an individual could then use to get training. This sounds good but first impressions are often deceiving.

First, there is no new money here. The federal portion (about $33m in Alberta) would come from existing money (about $50m--I can't find the exact number so am inferring this from national data) the feds gives the province. Alberta uses the existing money to do various things, including adult upgrading and training, running employment centres and whatnot. Losing this $33m to the CJG would radically curtail other job-training services unless the province could come up with $33m to replace it.

The catch is that Alberta would not only have to come up with $33m to replace the lost federal money, but also another $33m to match the federal contribution (so the price tag for Alberta is $66m).  In effect, going along with the CJG would significantly reduce job-training programming in Alberta (I'm unable to find a solid number on what the province spends currently). 

And, of course, employers would need to come up with (collectively) $33m for their portion. I’m not saying this won’t happen, but employers have been reluctant to fund training in the past (witness their unwillingness to hire apprentices but then bitch about the lack of skilled tradespeople).

The basic thinking behind the CJG is that there are employment-ready workers who just need a bit of (re)training to get back into the workforce. This may be true in Ontario where the decline in manufacturing has resulted in layoffs of employment-ready workers.

This is less true in Alberta where anyone not in the labour market likely faces several barriers to joining, such as difficulties with literacy/numeracy. As Dave Hancock notes in the Journal story, the CJG will pull funding from adult upgrading programs (programs that help the presently unemployable) and directing it towards job-specific training (in Alberta, basically helping the employed get better jobs).

It is hard to know what to make of the CJG. It looks like something cooked up over drinks in Ottawa at the last minute by people who have no idea how employment training works. Yet it allows the feds to either (1) direct provincial training efforts or, if the provinces refuse to knuckle under, (2) save $300m nationally and shift the blame for this de facto budget cut to the provinces.

Then there is the difficult issue that the skills gap the feds keep talking about to justify this change may not really exist… .  And, if Alberta and the feds can’t agree on the CJG, does this jeopardize the entire $50m Alberta has been getting from the feds under the Labour Market Agreement (which expires in March)?

-- Bob Barnetson

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