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Canada’s skills gap: It’s time for action

Published by Derek Lothian on November 08, 2013

By Jayson Myers, President & CEO, Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters

When federal and provincial ministers of employment and skills training meet today in Toronto, the Canada Jobs Grant that was proposed in the last federal budget will be an important subject of discussion. How effectively are provinces and territories spending the taxpayer dollars being transferred to them by Ottawa for workforce training? Who should determine how money for training is best spent? Where should the money come from? And, of course, what level of government has the jurisdictional authority to decide?

These are important political and administrative questions. But, the discussion will lead nowhere unless there is a common commitment to helping Canadians connect with current and future job opportunities in an economy where demand for practical, analytical, and technical skills is rapidly growing.

Canada's skills gap has been well studied and well documented. There are currently 1.3 million Canadians looking for work and 210,000 job vacancies waiting to be filled. Our workforce participation rate has dropped. And, many Canadians are underemployed because they cannot find jobs that match their skills. Meanwhile, employment opportunities are changing. Many businesses are turning to Canada's immigration system to find the skilled workers they need. Some report that they are foregoing growth opportunities because of a lack of skilled workers. A few say that labour shortages are a factor in their decision to expand outside Canada. The challenges for employers will only get worse as older workers retire.

It is also apparent that business-as-usual responses are not adequate to address these issues. Canadian businesses under-invest in skills training. Many still assume they will be able to find new employees when they need them with the exact skills they require - a tricky assumption in today's world of rapid technological and organizational change. But, why invest in training when apprentices or new employees can easily be bid away by other companies? It's often easier to find skilled workers who already have jobs and experience gained elsewhere.

Meanwhile, there is a growing misalignment between our education systems and the world of work. Young Canadians are finding it difficult to break into the workforce. Students are graduating without the mathematical and communication skills required for a job in almost any field of activity. High schools are shutting down technical and practical education programs. Seats in college technical courses are going empty. Many university graduates also lack the applied skills and experience required to find good-paying jobs. And, the advice available to students about career opportunities is all too often inaccurate and out of date.

There are many other challenges as well. How can we get better labour market information about present and future job requirements? How can we do a better job in preparing Canadians with the essential skills required to enter the labour force and find a job? How can we improve employment opportunities for our rapidly growing aboriginal population, for disabled Canadians, and for more women in trades and technology? How do we dissolve the barriers to labour mobility across Canada, ensuring the recognition of educational, professional, and skills competencies that would allow Canadians to study and work anywhere they want in their own country?

Canada's labour market challenges are well known, the solutions less so. It is clear, however, that finger pointing, lines in the sand, and inter-institutional and inter-jurisdictional rivalries will put us even further behind. The solutions to our problems require concerted, cooperative, and collaborative action on the part of federal, provincial, and territorial governments, local employment and training agencies, business and labour organizations, aboriginal councils, educators and parents alike. Above all they require leadership, a long-term strategic vision, a willingness to invest, and a keen focus on achieving results in the form of good paying jobs for Canadians today - and for our children tomorrow.

That is what today's discussion among employment and training ministers should be about.

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