Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

If it ain't broke

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The federal government's plan to unilaterally change the way job-training programs are funded has sparked an open revolt among the provinces in what may be the most tense federal-provincial disagreement since the Conservatives were elected.

For its part, the Harper Conservatives say it's damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.

Caught in the middle are Canada's unemployed and underemployed workers who have benefitted from programs designed to help them find and hold jobs. The business community and the economy in general also depend on job training that will ensure Canada has not just enough workers, but workers with the right skills.

There's a lot at stake, in other words, in ensuring the provinces and Ottawa develop a consensus for moving forward.

Until now, Ottawa has transferred about $500 million a year to the provinces to help pay for programs that primarily targeted the unemployed and the vulnerable, aboriginals, and people with disabilities or very little education.

The program was designed to get them into the workforce, but it also provided on-the-job training and workplace-based skills upgrading.

The Harper government announced in its spring budget it was moving its support from the current program to a more focused plan that would provide training for existing jobs. It wanted to better match funding with market conditions to ensure employers would have the right workers at the right time.

The change means Ottawa's support for the existing program would fall to $200 million. In Manitoba's case, the hit is worth about $18 million a year.

If that wasn't bad enough, Ottawa is also insisting the provinces contribute a total of $300 million a year to the new federal program, to be known as the Canada Job Grant.

Under this measure, the two levels of government and employers will each contribute $5,000, for a total of $15,000, to upgrade the skills of existing workers.

The program effectively forces the provinces to help finance a plan they don't support, while Ottawa drops its funding for a training regimen the premiers say has been successful.

British Columbia, for example, says 94,000 people have received training under the existing program, and two-thirds found jobs.

In Manitoba last year, 76 per cent of those who received training found work.

Other provinces report similar success rates and they want the program maintained.

The new Canada Job Grant is designed to ensure employers have a skilled workforce, but the program is untested and vague in terms of who would be eligible for grants.

The federal government has failed to explain to the provinces or the public in general why it wants to diminish what works, while striking out in a new direction.

Manitoba expects to add 75,000 more workers to the labour market by 2020, according to provincial statistics, while other provinces are also anticipating corresponding increases in response to current and anticipated labour market challenges.

Like some other provinces, Manitoba also faces the challenge of ensuring its large aboriginal population is trained and equipped to find work in the modern workplace. In fact, it's a strategy that is essential to the success of the province, particularly as the competition for skilled workers increases.

Ottawa, however, seems to want to pursue two different strategies, which may be fine, but it should not come at the expense of a program that has had some success.

Instead of digging in its heels for a fight, the federal government should take a step back and work with the provinces on a compromise that meets the needs of employers, workers, and the unemployed and vulnerable.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 20, 2013 A8

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Updated on Wednesday, November 20, 2013 at 8:29 AM CST: adds image

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