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Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Patty Hajdu speaks to reporters during a weekend meeting of the national caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on March 25, 2017.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Ottawa is launching a new work-placement program for postsecondary students in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and business that includes extra incentives for underrepresented groups.

Companies in these fields that provide placements for first-year students, women, Indigenous students, people with disabilities and new immigrants will be eligible for wage subsidies of up to 70 per cent or $7,000. All other student placements will be eligible for funding of up to 50 per cent of the wage, or $5,000.

The $73-million program was first announced in the 2016 federal budget but was officially launched Monday by Employment Minister Patty Hajdu. It is now up to postsecondary institutions to finalize details with private-sector companies on specific placements.

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Ottawa says the program will create 60,000 student work placements over five years.

In an interview, Ms. Hajdu said the federal government is looking at other ways to have employment programs target underrepresented segments of the work force. She noted that it's a theme that Canada is carrying into the North American free-trade negotiations as Canada pushes for chapters on gender rights and Indigenous people.

Ms. Hajdu said it's an approach that helps workers and the economy but can also save governments money in terms of social-safety-net spending.

"When you don't truly maximize people's true potential, then, in fact, not only do you miss out on that growth potential, but you also cost governments at all levels an extraordinary amount of money to take care of people who have been left behind," she said. "We often don't calculate those costs."

Government officials are currently working on an update of the broader federal youth-employment strategy, and Ms. Hajdu said she expects to be presented with policy options in the fall.

The Canadian economy faces demographic pressures over the coming years as the baby-boom generation retires. Policy makers have been warned that Canada faces growing skills shortages in a wide range of fields. Federal and provincial governments have pledged to encourage training programs that target traditionally underrepresented groups so that they can fill some of those shortages.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau's advisory council on economic growth reported last year that there is "significant" potential for boosting economic growth by improving work-force participation rates of underrepresented groups. The council also said that this type of policy focus would have the advantage of disproportionately benefiting Canadians with the lowest incomes.

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Earlier this year, another federal advisory panel focused exclusively on youth employment warned that young Canadians are facing "a new world of work" that is far more precarious and uncertain than the work force faced by earlier generations.

The Expert Panel on Youth Employment also recommended that federal youth-employment programs should focus on the most vulnerable, including Indigenous youth. Another recommendation was that Ottawa should look at devolving youth-employment programs to the provinces and territories, subject to conditions.

It also called for the Canada Summer Jobs program to broaden into the Canada Youth Jobs program, which is recommended by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

Michael McDonald, executive director of CASA, said his organization welcomes Monday's announcement and the focus on disadvantaged groups. He said he hopes it will become a model for student work-placement programs in all fields.

"We are hoping that this is kind of a jumping-off point," he said. "We think there's real opportunity throughout the other departments and other fields of study at polytechnics, at universities and colleges that you're going to be able to create better work transitions for students in a variety of other programs as well, but this is a really, really strong start."

Indigenous students at Patricia-Keewatin District School Board were graduating at about half the rate of non-Indigenous students. So at Dryden High School they implemented a unique program with a graduation coach who works alongside the students - not as a teacher - to guide them through high school. So far the program seems to be working.
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