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Jason Kenney should work with partners to redefine Canadian Jobs Grant

Jason Kenney may have the politically sexiest title in Cabinet—“Minister of Jobs”—but most Canadians probably haven’t a clue what he actually does. If he wants to live up to the billing, the Minister needs a simple story about his role in job creation that they can understand. The Canadian Jobs Grant (CJG) tells such a story.

Kenney believes that on job training Canadian employers are massive under-investors. By contrast, governments have been doing more than their share. Nevertheless, Kenney agrees with employers that our training programs are not aligned with our needs and, as a result, businesses will face major labour shortages in the coming years.

The CJG is supposed to fix both problems. First, it gets employers to pay part of the cost of training an employee or a person they plan to hire. The idea is that if they have to use their own dollars, they will be careful to invest in priority areas. Second, by making such an investment, the employer will be committed to (re)hiring the person when the training is done.

The federal share of the new program will be paid for by clawing back $300 million that the feds transferred to the provinces/territories in 2009 under the Labour Market Agreements.

Now, if the program seems plausible in theory, it has become a problem in practice. Virtually all of the provinces/territories have opposed it. And not just because of the claw-back or the unilateral style of the feds. The program has consequences that many Canadians will find offensive.

The LMA funds were targeted at people who are not eligible for training under the Employment Insurance fund. This includes some of the most vulnerable people in our society, many of whom are aboriginal, people on social assistance, the disabled or new Canadians.

While the feds say the CJG will result in better employment outcomes, they are less forthcoming about what this involves. The program effectively takes training dollars away from vulnerable groups and re-focuses them on Canadians who already have jobs or who have better prospects for getting them.

This reassignment of resources from one social group to another is neither open nor transparent. On the contrary, as we’ve seen, the CJG requires an investment by the sponsoring employer. The unspoken point here is that employers are highly unlikely to sponsor anyone other than their own employees or an individual they already planned to hire.

In short, the program criteria will engineer a huge selection effect that will effectively remove highly vulnerable people from the programs.

Will this lead to better employment outcomes? Well, technically, yes … but it’s like the university student who drives up his GPA by signing up for “bird courses” and avoiding the hard ones.

The provinces are right to resist. Indeed, they have no real alternative. To endorse the program in its present form would be to send a devastating message about the government’s willingness to abandon its most vulnerable citizens.

This response seems to have taken the federal government by surprise. Apparently, it was expecting to see some up-take from the provinces/territories. Kenney has since said that he is open to discussing changes to the CJG and the premiers are reportedly working on a proposal—all of which is encouraging news.

At this stage, what the provinces should be looking for is a story that shows how federal leadership on this file can contribute to success—and therefore justifies continued investment. Kenney needs such a story and it is in the provinces’ interest to help him find it. Kenney himself has inadvertently suggested a way.

In the coming years, he says, he sees the federal government becoming a much more robust provider and aggregator of labour market information for Canadians. This is an idea that has been talked about for a decade and it is high-time someone acted on it.

Not only is such information crucial to help Canadian businesses identify their training needs for the future. It is critical to the future success of programs aimed at integrating people on the margins of the labour market. Such people face a wide range of barriers, ranging from literacy and language issues to mental illness and physical disabilities.

However, with the right supports and opportunities, we have seen that many become productive employees and full members of society. As the premiers keep noting, lots of encouraging experiments are underway across the country. For example, local peer support programs and community employer networks are being tested and have proven to be effective ways of overcoming many social and cultural barriers. Reliable and timely information would be a welcome addition to these tools.

If Kenney wants to build a real partnership with businesses and provincial/territorial governments, he could work with them to redefine the CJG as a program that will continue to support these at-risk groups, possibly through a new federal role in providing high-quality labour-market information.

Finally, Kenney could use his remarkable networking skills to lead a national dialogue on how employer organizations could work with governments to identify and eliminate employment barriers of all kinds. This is a story about job creation that all Canadians would understand.

 

Dr. Don Lenihan is Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. He is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Don’s latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement is an introduction to the field of public engagement, a blueprint for change, and a sustained argument for the need to rethink the public policy process. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@ppforum.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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