What Does the Skills and Innovation Budget Hold for Us?

Summary of Skill Mentions in the Provincial Budgets

Note that this summary is based on a quick scan of news sources. If you have more complete information, please share it with the rest of the Institute membership.

 

by Saul Carliner, PhD, CTDP

The 2017 Canadian federal budget is being promoted as a Skills and Innovation budget. Because Learning and Development professionals are in the skills development business, what does this budget hold for us?

In this article, I summarize each major initiative related to skills development and deployment. Following the summary of the initiative, I also offer commentary.

 

Background

The budget targets six areas for growth:

  • Advanced manufacturing (central to the “Fourth Generation Industrial Revolution)
  • Agri-food
  • Clean technology
  • Digital industries
  • Health/bio-sciences
  • Clean resources

The government has a specific goal of doubling the number of companies in digital, clean technology and health technology sectors from 14,000 to 28,000 by 2025. As part of that effort, the government plans to expand the level of support for job training under the Labour Market Transfer Agreements, including expanding eligibility for programs and services under the Labour Market Development Agreements.

Success in this skills development includes:

  • “Build[ing] an innovative economy that is open to all Canadians
  • Help[ing] Canadians adapt to the changing nature of work.
  • “Encourag[ing] a culture of lifelong learning.”

In other words, what we do.  The budget has a number of specific measures to promote the development of skills.

 

Supporting students in preparing for their first jobs

 

Within colleges and universities is a growing recognition of the importance of practical experiences to complement classroom learning. The budget includes these measures to support this work-integrated learning:

 

•          The government plans to continue to promote work-integrated learning opportunities for post-secondary programs who are enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and business programs by continuing programs established in the 2016 budget.

 

•          An increase of funding for Mitacs to nearly triple the number of work-integrated placements over the next five years. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Mitacs is a government-funded program that supports “applied and industrial research in mathematical sciences and associated disciplines” by providing funding for projects in industry that have a research component and that can employ students, post-doctoral fellows, and faculty.

 

•          Limits on unpaid internships in federally regulated sectors. The budget specifically notes that “While internships can give young Canadians the hands-on work experience they need to make a successful transition into the workforce, some internships—in particular those that are unpaid—can be unfair and exploitative. Budget 2017 proposes to eliminate unpaid internships in federally regulated sectors where the internships are not part of a formal educational program.”

Comments:

Although the budget starts its discussion of these programs as “A New, Ambitious Approach to Work-Integrated Learning,” there’s absolutely nothing new about some of these proposals. Cooperative education and internships have been popular for decades. Nor was the funding new; that was proposed in the 2016 budget.

 

But perhaps most limiting about this program is that it focuses solely on STEM and business students. Work-integrated learning plays a central role in other fields, too.

 

Work-integrated learning has always been central to the field of education (think student teaching) but perhaps the government feels that’s already funded.

 

What many people do not realize is that work-integrated training is also helpful in the humanities, social sciences, and arts. Contrary to popular belief, these fields often prepare students for real jobs, such as English programs preparing students for professional writing jobs, political science programs preparing students for public policy and administration jobs, and arts programs preparing students for entertainment and arts management jobs. Even without federal funding and support, universities like Concordia have cooperative education and internship programs for students in these disciplines.

 

Also note that, in many instances, work-integrated training seems to have replaced the campus and new-hire programs that many larger employers sponsored in the past, in which employers hired graduating students in whom they saw long-term potential and spent the next couple of years developing them, often through a series of short-term work assignments in different parts of the organization, called rotations.

 

The increase in funding for Mitacs actually continues a program that, although founded by the Liberals in the late 1990s, was popular under the Conservatives because it supported its goal of applied research to support industry. Without getting into debates about where to invest research dollars, continued support for research-related programs that have direct applications is important to promoting innovation in the economy. (For what it’s worth, investments in applied research should not supplant basic research, whose immediate applications are less clear because the intended benefits are long-term.)

 

Ending unpaid internships in federally regulated sectors is a significant step and responds to a years-long clarion call about abuses of unpaid internships by employers and about the dead-ends that some interns experience afterwards. Other programs promote paid internships for workers who need them.

Providing employment opportunities for young people

 

The federal budget contains many programs that provide and support employment opportunities for young people, a group that has a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the adult population.  Specific measures include:

•          Funding for 5,000 young Canadians to receive jobs “under the Skills Link stream, which helps vulnerable youth overcome barriers to employment. “

•          Additional efforts to help vulnerable youth enter the labour market include $395.5 million funding over three years (starting this year) to “help more than 33,000 vulnerable youth develop the skills they need to find work or go back to school; create 15,000 new green jobs for young Canadians; and provide over 1,600 new employment opportunities for youth in the heritage sector.”

•          As many as 2,500 jobs in the green sector “that help young Canadians learn about their natural environment and contribute to economic growth in the environmental sectors.”

•          Continued funding of the Young Canada Works that provides opportunities to work in the heritage sector.

 

Comments:

Although the budget does not explicitly mention this, many of these positions are summer jobs rather than long-term employment opportunities. Furthermore, the budget does not clarify how the number of new jobs mentioned here relate to the number of new jobs that were supposed to have been created through multi-year programs named in the 2016-2-17 budget.

Supporting workers in upgrading their skills

 

One way to upgrade skills while working is to attend a degree program part-time. To support workers in doing so, the 2017 budget includes financial supports for part-time students, especially ones who are assumed to be working. These include:

•          “A 50 per cent increase in Canada Student Grants available for part-time students, beginning in the 2016–17 academic year,” providing about 16,000 part-time students with as much as an additional $600 per year.

•          A new formula for determining whether a student is eligible for Canada Student Loans Program for the 2017–18 academic year. This new model is intended to increase eligibility for adult learners who own homes and other assets that might have disqualified them in the past, as well as change the income thresholds so more part-time students are eligible.

•          The changes are intended to help 10,000 additional part-time students become eligible the loans each year.

 

Comments:

For those workers who have the time to pursue a degree, this is good news to a point, but could also mean more students with more student debt. In theory, part-time students have some safeguards against debt burdens not available to full-time students, because part-time students are assumed to earn a salary that can cover living expenses and, therefore, limit debt to expenses related to tuition and fees.

Loan programs typically focus on students pursuing an academic program. Although that’s great for universities, the reality is that many workers do not need a full academic degree to maintain their skills. Some need one or two refresher courses. Others would benefit from shorter and more focused continuing education certificates. Still others would benefit from programs from private providers. These loan programs do not seem to address these needs.

 

Supporting workers in transition

 

As the budget acknowledges, one of the reasons that some workers no longer have jobs is because they worked in declining industries or fields, and need retraining to qualify for employment in industries and jobs with stronger prospects. The budget includes these measures:

•          People who are receiving Employment Insurance (EI) will remain eligible for benefits if they are pursuing elf-funded training. In the past, recipients had to be actively looking for work.

 

•          Under Labour Market Development Agreements (LMDAs), current and past EI claimants can gain skills through a combination of training and wage subsidies.  Labour Market Development Agreements (LMDAs) are formal pacts with provinces and territories that let them decide how to spend federal dollars to provide employment assistance and training within the contexts of their local labour markets.

Comments:

The rule change to EI acknowledges why many workers are on EI and provides at least some support for the retraining effort needed to return to the labour market in positions with greater prospects.

 

The LMDAs are not new; some have been in place for decades. So this is not new.

 

But the key issue with this provision is that it primarily focuses on workers in crisis. Other than support for part-time students in degree programs, the budget has limited provisions for what is essentially “employment wellness;” providing incentives to workers and their employers to maintain skills despite its mention of a need to promote lifelong learning.  This is a significant problem because the amount of money that Canadian employers spend on training has been steadily dropping over the past decade or so, with employers relying on informal learning to fill the gap. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that 60% of all workplace related training occurs informally. While sexy to the training community, research finds that such “minimally guided instruction” fails to achieve its objectives (or worse, learners learn the wrong thing) (for details, see de Bruykere and Kirschner’s Urban Myths book). It also takes longer for workers to learn things informally than formally, as noted by informal researcher Michael Eraut.

 

To put this into perspective, on a recent news show, representatives of Google and other high tech companies were explaining why they need to hire temporary foreign workers. One local viewer commented, “Perhaps, but what are these companies doing to develop the skills on their own staffs.”

 

 

Supporting skill development in indigenous communities

 

With current high school dropout rates nearly three times the national average, populations in indigenous communities—especially those in the far north—face a barrier to employment. The government is expanding the Northern Adult Basic Education Program is designed to provide residents in the three territories (Northwest, Nunavut, and Yukon) with “targeted training so that they can participate more fully in the labour market.”

 

The budget specifically allocates  “$14.7 million over three years starting in 2017–18 to extend and enhance the Northern Adult Basic Education Program.”

 

Comments:

Certainly efforts to address barriers to the workforce are welcomed. But skills development programs that occur in isolation of economic development efforts to generate jobs are not likely to have the intended impact. The announcement does not indicate how this program integrates with other skill development programs also mentioned in the budget, especially those focused on developing workers for the resources sector.

 

Furthermore, the budget provides no indication of how this spending compares to previous spending on the program nor of the extent to which this spending addresses the needs of these communities.

 

Recognizing foreign credentials

 

To avoid the problems of “doctor who works as a cabbie” situation, made hard not only by the rise of Uber but, more fundamentally, by the challenges that immigrants face in having their credentials recognized, the 2017 federal budget proposes three measures to help immigrants with recognition of their credentials and finding work in their chosen fields.

 

First is support for receiving recognition of the credential before arriving in Canada.

 

Second is a loan program that helps immigrants cover the cost of having their credentials recognized in Canada.

 

Third are “targeted measures to test innovative approaches to help skilled newcomers gain Canadian work experience in their profession,” although the budget does not provide details about these innovative approaches.

 

 

Comments:

In theory, this sounds great. But funding and programs can only solve part of the recognition problem.

 

Furthermore, this is not the first time a federal effort has attempted to address this issue. Credentialing is a provincial matter, not a federal one. So the federal government has limited authority to support this effort. Furthermore, most licenses and certifications in Canada require proficiency in one of the two official languages of Canada and completion of a program accredited or recognized by a provincial order. Many of the programs outside of Canada are not recognized.

 

 

Training for entrepreneurship

 

Futurpreneur Canada will receive $14 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to develop “the next generation of entrepreneurs.” Funding will be used with matching funds from other government and private sector partners.

 

 

Comments:

Futurpreneur Canada is a long-standing non-profit that provides mentoring and financing to entrepreneurs between ages 18 and 39. Mentors are volunteers.

Improving skills tracking

 

The 2017 budget plans to establish a new organization to “support skills development and measurement in Canada,” by working with willing provinces and territories, the private sector, educational institutions, and nonprofits to identify the skills sought by Canadian employers, share information and analysis about skills-related issues, and “explore new and innovative approaches to skills development.”

 

Although little detail is provided, this proposal appears that this would be a Canadian agency that might offer services that are similar either to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics or the types of types of tracking of jobs, education, and careers that the US Department of Education is tracking about jobs and education.

 

 

Comments:

This organization is an infrastructure project so the typical learning and development professional will rarely, if ever, interact with it. But to those involved in any type of workforce planning effort, it could have the potential to provide invaluable information for data-based decision making. The organization will likely need a few years to establish itself and determine how it integrates with Statistics Canada, which already tracks employment-related data. Most likely, too, participation in the data collection effort will be voluntary. The organization will need to find ways to encourage all parties to participate in its data collection efforts to ensure that it provides the most effective data possible.

Other human resources provisions

 

The government proposes “to ensure that hard-working Canadians can more easily recover wages owed to them by their employer, and to ensure that employers who repeatedly offend will be punished” by moving other funds from Employment and Social Development Canada into enforcement.

 

 

Comments:

Interesting that the federal government has taken on this initiative. Although I do not know the prevalence of this problem, I have seen more coverage of it in the US than in Canada.

Closing Thoughts

 

All funding to support skill development is appreciated by those of us who work in Learning and Development.

Nearly all of these programs seem to focus on crisis situations: assisting with the entry into employment or passing over a significant hurdle later on, such as limited skills or long-term unemployment.  As these situations pose the most immediate need, they should receive priority.

But just as the K-12 and higher education systems focus significant energies on increasing their graduation rates to ensure that young people have the greatest chance of securing and retaining employment, so some effort might be invested in measures post-employment to ensure that workers have the skills to stay employable.

This is no small issue. A number of the programs in the federal budget address workers employed by or recently laid off from organizations and industries in decline. Given the trajectories of technological development and the globalization of the economy, we can only anticipate that these trends will accelerate.

With employer spending on employee training significantly lower now than a decade ago according to the Conference Board of Canada Learning and Development Report, one of the ongoing challenges to the Canadian economy is ensuring workers who currently hold jobs also have the skills they need to remain employed. Think of this as “wellness skills assessment and development” much the way the health care system has increasingly emphasized wellness to ensure the long-term health of the population.

Critiques and wish lists aside, to see skills receive such prominent attention in a federal budget is heartwarming and gratifying to this Performance and Learning professional. It reminds me of the significance of our work.

See the Skills, Innovation, and Middle Class jobs section of the 2017-2018 federal budget.

Saul Carliner, PhD, CTDP, is a Professor of Education at Concordia University, a Fellow, Chair of the Certification Steering Committee and past board member of the Institute for Performance and Learning.

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