An interview with Mike Luff, who presented at the Dignity for All policy summit on Employment.
Which groups in Canada typically face high levels of unemployment?
Too many workers are currently being locked out of opportunity and prosperity. This includes immigrants, Aboriginal peoples, women, persons with disabilities, at-risk youth, older workers, and less-skilled individuals (those with a high school diploma or less).
Faced with an aging population and increasing global competition, it is critical that we do everything we can to maximize the size and skills of our workforce. We cannot afford to leave anybody on the sidelines.
How is Canada leading in education and training? How is it falling behind?
Canada’s formal education system (K to 12) is performing relatively well. In addition, Canada has the highest level of postsecondary qualification among developed countries.
Unfortunately, Canada’s record on training and skills development outside the formal education system is dreadful. Employer investment in training has decreased 40 per cent since 1993 and Canada is near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to public spending on training for unemployed workers.
How does investing in ‘human capital’ contribute to the common good?
Improving the knowledge, skills, and talents of our workforce— what economists call our ‘human capital’—by investing in education and training is essential to Canada’s ability to out-compete and out-innovate the rest of the world. This contributes to the common good by helping to build a stronger economy, enhancing personal development, and strengthening social cohesion.
Research shows a positive relationship between education and training and increased productivity and economic growth. A strong economy is key to investing more in the public services and social programs that provide all Canadians with a basic measure of security and dignity and a fair chance to succeed (e.g. health care, education, community-based social services, and the Canada Pension Plan).
Training that is broadly-based—especially literacy and essential skills education—can enhance the ability of workers to participate fully in the life of society. Skills development can lead to more positive work and life experiences and change a person’s mindset. With new and higher skills, people feel empowered and become more active in their communities.
What are three key policies the Federal Government should enact to make significant gains in skills development?
First, public policy must be set on the basis of solid evidence. The Federal Government should increase funding to Statistics Canada so it can develop more detailed labour market data by occupation and at the regional and local levels.
Second, the Federal Government must invest in up-skilling the existing workforce. It should allow employed workers to access Employment Insurance (EI) benefits for training leaves. Employers would have to ensure the worker could return to their job when the training is finished.
This new program would help tackle working poverty by providing a path for low-skilled workers to move up into higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs. It would not add any new costs to the Federal Government’s budget since the funding would come from the EI Operating Account, which is made up of contributions from employers and workers.
Third, the Federal Government must invest more in training programs for unemployed workers so they can upgrade their skills, find steady employment, and provide stability for their families.
Public justice recognizes the important role not only of citizens and governments, but the private sector as well. For Catalyst readers who are employers, what are steps they can take to improve skills development among their workers?
It is essential that employers develop a training culture within their organizations by linking training to their core strategy, plans, and priorities.
In addition, while many employers recognize they have a responsibility to provide workers with firm-specific training, there are far too many employers that do not believe they have a responsibility to support the development of workers' skills more generally, such as literacy and essential skills. Employers are often concerned about rivals "poaching" their employees after they have invested in training and they seem to believe this possibility increases with investments in general skills that are transferable in the broader labour market. This attitude needs to change.
Mike Luff is a Senior Researcher for Social and Economic Policy at the Canadian Labour Congress, the umbrella organization for Canada’s national and international unions which represents the interests of more than three million unionized workers.