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Changes to Federal Programs Ice Vulnerable Workers: Provinces

Ministers argue new Canada Job Grant is inflexible, excludes the unemployed.

By Andrew MacLeod 25 Sep 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Jobs Minister Shirley Bond, seen here with Premier Christy Clark last year, was in Toronto yesterday with other ministers to battle federal changes to nationally-funded job programs.

Provincial and territorial labour market ministers expressed concern yesterday that the federal government's proposed changes to nationally-funded job programs could harm the workers most in need of help.

But with little evidence available to the public about how well the current programs are working, it's unclear which level of government is right.

"We want to ensure marginalized Canadians continue to have the support that they need," said Shirley Bond, British Columbia's minister of jobs, tourism and skills training. "If you make the shift in policy that moves away from marginalized Canadians, what happens to that work group?"

Bond was in Toronto meeting with provincial and territorial labour market ministers. At issue is a federal plan to introduce the Canada Job Grant, which would provide up to $5,000 per person for training in situations where the amount was matched by an employer and a province or territory.

The program would partially replace the Labour Market Agreements, which expire in March 2014. Those agreements were signed in 2008 as the federal government shifted responsibility for managing job programs to the provinces and territories.

P.E.I.'s Allen Roach said the ministers unanimously agreed with a position taken in July by the country's premiers that they couldn't support the new federal program the way it was written.

Vulnerable left out

The federal government transfers some $2.45 billion a year to the provinces and territories under the Labour Market Agreements and the related Labour Market Development Agreements, which make job programs available to people receiving employment insurance.

B.C.'s share under the two programs is $346 million a year.

But provincial and territorial ministers are worried about shifting eligibility under the new program. Unemployed people would lose out, they argue.

"We all agree that engaging employers in improving the skills of their employees is important to effective training," reads Building Skills Together, a report detailing the ministers' concerns. "However, provinces and territories are also unanimous in our belief that the proposed Canada Job Grant, a one-size-fits-all program, is not the best tool to meet this objective."

The new program will take $600 million a year away from programs that help vulnerable workers and is unlikely to support those clients, it says.

"Only clients who have an employer would be eligible for support, so vulnerable clients who do not have a job would not be supported," it states. "The federal government has provided no evidence that the proposal will help workers or employers. However, it would divert funding from existing provincial and territorial programs that are delivering good results."

The Canada Job Grant lacks flexibility and would make it difficult for provinces and territories to respond to local needs, according to the report. Small and even medium-sized businesses might not be able to participate.

"Implementation of the Canada Job Grant could destabilize the existing service delivery networks and have a negative effect on programs and clients."

Discussion needed: Bond

Bond said the provincial and territorial leaders hope to have a "constructive and candid" discussion with federal Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney as soon as possible.

A spokesperson for his ministry took The Tyee's questions, but didn't respond by publication time.

"Our most significant concern is that every Canadian has an opportunity to be employed in a meaningful job in this country and we want to ensure those who require extra assistance and the kinds of training programs we've had in place continue to have that opportunity," Bond said.

"Canadians need to know that provinces and territories have worked hard to use the money appropriately and effectively," she said.

There have been suggestions that federal officials do not believe the provincial programs are working as well as they could.

Bond said if it's about demonstrating the effectiveness of the programs, the federal government should have that discussion with the provinces and territories. "We're also saying all of us can do better," she said. "All of us would say today we could probably improve in the delivery."

It's important to recognize the success of the current programs, she said. "We need to do a better job of sharing our success stories.... In each jurisdiction there are programs that have shown a significant effectiveness, and we don't want those programs to be lost."

The report also asserts that the provincial and territorial programs are working well, but acknowledges the evidence isn't yet publicly available.

"In collaboration with the federal government, provinces and territories have actively participated in the evaluation of programs supported by Labour Market Agreements," it states. "While the final report has not yet been released to the public, we know that findings from the Labour Market Agreement evaluation show that these programs are working."

As the debate continues, the public will be looking to both sides for evidence on how effectively current programs are putting Canadians to work, and whether a revamping of the program is justified.  [Tyee]

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