When the 13 provincial and territorial leaders got together in Niagara-on-the-Lake in July, they panned Ottawa's new job training program. Instead of focusing on the urgent need for more skilled workers, they called for more consultation and research, and flexed their regional muscles.
Former federal human resources minister Diane Finley aptly compared the "skills without jobs … jobs without skills gap" to a person with an ear to the track listening for the train, saying: "It's time to stop listening for the train because it's bearing down upon us." Business leaders agree, even if it seems some political leaders don't.
A recent Canadian Council of Chief Executives report said the country is falling behind in the global skills race. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce estimates that, by 2016, there will be 550,000 people unable to find work and at least as many postsecondary graduates working in low skills jobs. At the same time, there will be 1.5 million vacancies for skilled jobs, 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 to mitigate this sobering outlook. How unfortunate that rather than discussing solutions, they chose to focus entirely on protection of their parochial right to spend federal grant money as they please.
Yet the problems, and the potential solutions, are almost entirely in provincial hands. Skilled trade apprenticeship is one important example. On-the-job apprenticeship training is essential for those enrolled in one of Canada's 150 designated skilled trades.
Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development data show 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 rate, and more than half Germany's postsecondary students enter apprenticeship programs.
In Canada, apprentices make up just 2 per cent of the labour force and finding a training placement can be a major challenge.
The disconnected regulatory structure for the 13 provinces and territories means apprentices who find employment in another region may not see their previous experience recognized, forcing them to start over again or find another occupation. 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.
Nor is Canada's ad-hoc apprenticeship structure keeping pace with rapid technological changes. An example is a highly skilled occupation known as mechatronics technician, which combines mechanical, electrical, instrumentation and robotics. This new skill is recognized in Europe, but not in Canada. Canadian employers who want to train mechatronics apprentices would not be able to tap into any government support programs, and those who complete the training would earn no credentials.
Andy Cleven, director for the Joint Training Committee in Coquitlam, B.C., has decried the training obstacles. "Although apprenticeships are meant to meet national standards, that's not easy with 13 jurisdictions developing different plans for the same trade," he said in a newspaper interview in July. "Imagine how messed up it can become."
Even with a cohesive national strategy, apprentices still need to find an employer willing to provide that essential on-the-job training. Many companies are reluctant to take on student apprentices because of the administrative costs of complying with regulatory requirements and perceived reduction in productivity of staff who mentor young workers.
A not-for-profit Ottawa group called the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum has set out to change employers' views. Its surveys show that revenue increases by $1.47 for each dollar invested in apprenticeship training. And interviews with skilled tradespeople reveal that most are eager to pass on their knowledge and that having a helper actually makes them more productive, not less.
Unless employers do their part to develop new skilled trades workers, they will face even more unfilled jobs and declining productivity. The task is vital and the hour is late. And rather than quibble about parochial politics, the 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.