Canada's skills and employment portfolio needs attention, Mr. Kenney

B.C. business leaders blast feds' new Canada Job Grant skills funding program as being financially onerous for small businesses

John Winter, president and CEO of BC Chamber of Commerce

BC business leaders hope that Jason Kenney will be able to hammer the skills and jobs file into shape — and repair the currently contentious relationship between Ottawa and the provinces on skills training funds.

Stephen Harper's July 15 cabinet shuffle made the Calgary MP, who previously shook up the immigration file (see sidebar), Canada's Minister of Employment and Social Development.

"His track record in immigration was one of considerable dialogue with stakeholders … and a willingness to change and do things that were designed to improve overall economic activity," said BC Chamber of Commerce CEO John Winter.

Kenney's first challenge has been to respond to the premiers' displeasure with Ottawa's plan to change the way it funds skills training programs.

Under the new Canada Job Grant, which was introduced in the 2013 federal budget, the provinces will lose 60% of their skills training transfers previously available under the Labour Markets Agreements program, which targets funding to low-skilled workers.

In an effort to match training with the needs of employers, federal funds will be matched equally by the provinces and businesses.

That troubles Winter.

He said many small businesses will be reluctant to take part in the program because it requires businesses to match up to $5,000 per person trained. That will have a significant impact in B.C., where "98% of employers have fewer than 10 employees."

"[It] is only affordable for medium to large businesses, and therefore excludes that sector of the economy – small business – that needs it the most."

Winter added that he doubts the program will get off the ground, predicting many employers will not be willing to invest money to train employees, only to risk losing them to another company.

Winter also shares a concern voiced by several of premiers at a recent Council of the Federation meeting: that the new program isn't tailored to each province's training needs.

"My sense is that because the government decided to do a cookie -cutter approach, they ended up with something without much appeal to anyone," he said.

For Greg D'Avignon, president and CEO of the Business Council of BC, skills training is strongly linked to immigration, Kenney's previous ministry.

"Minister Kenney brings some value because he understands the immigration file and made some changes there, changes that frankly were overdue and helpful to the economy generally and business specifically."

D'Avignon added that aligning skills training more closely with industry needs is sorely needed, as is long-term labour market planning and increasing labour mobility to encourage Lower Mainland workers to move to resource hot spots like Prince George or Cranbrook.

"We need to make sure that business steps up," he said. "This isn't just all about the government. Industry needs to step up and be more focused around what we need ... and also how we can train people."

Kenney has committed to meet with the premiers this fall to discuss labour market policy. B.C. Premier Christy Clark and New Brunswick premier David Alward have been tasked with studying the issue and will report back to the premiers this fall.