TORONTO - Unless the federal Conservatives make substantial changes to the Canada Job Grant, the jobs training fund is doomed to failure, provincial leaders said Wednesday.
Ottawa has to be open to changing the program because a "one-size-fits-all" approach to helping more people find jobs isn't going to work, said British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and New Brunswick Premier David Alward.
"If the federal government is hell-bent on moving forward without dialogue, the provinces have said, we will not be participating," Alward said after a roundtable meeting in Toronto with representatives from the labour sector.
"That is clear."
All 33 stakeholders at the meeting in Toronto said changes were needed to the program and only three said they were prepared to support the program, Clark said. Small businesses also have concerns.
"The closer the organization was to actually delivering training on the ground in communities, the more concerned they were about the impact it was going to have," she said.
"And that really, I think, speaks to the concern that a big, one-size-fits-all solution is just simply not going to work on the ground where training is actually delivered and where workers get what they need to go into the real workforce."
There's a lot riding on getting the program right, Alward said.
"Ultimately it means that people will not be working," he said. "Ultimately it means that businesses will not be successful, and ultimately it means governments — at all levels — will not have the revenues that they need to provide the services that people need."
The federal Conservatives want to divert some of the money they give to the provinces and territories to the new Canada Job Grant, which would provide a grant of $15,000 per worker.
The provinces and territories, as well as the employers, would each kick in $5,000.
But the provinces and territories worry that it won't give them enough flexibility to direct the money where it's needed most and could jeopardize existing provincially run programs that help disadvantaged groups.
They say they'd have to come up with more than $600 million to maintain their current programs as well as match the cost of the Canada Job Grant.
Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney is expected to meet with provincial and territorial leaders this fall to talk about the program.
His office said he's met with dozens of stakeholders in recent weeks who "strongly support" the program, adding that employers best understand skills training and labour market needs.
"Employers have been expressing frustration for some time that they are excluded from direct involvement in skills training programs, and this has to change in order to effectively tackle skills shortages," his office said in an emailed statement.
"The Canada Job Grant responds directly to this request by employers, by putting job creation and skills training decisions in their hands."
Mathew Wilson, vice-president of national policy at the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters who participated in the Toronto roundtable with Clark and Alward, said government should be supporting what employers want to do.
Some colleges and universities tend to take a theoretical approach to training and don't have the right equipment or machinery for their students, he said. Instead of giving them the money for training, it should go to the companies that are doing more hands-on work so they can work directly with those education institutions.
"Yes, there are people, including CME, asking for changes to Canada Job Grant," he said, adding that he was "encouraged" by the discussion.
"I think there was a general consensus that employer-driven training will be the most effective way to deliver training programs going forward, because employers are the ones that are hiring people and training people or need to train people to do the jobs of tomorrow," Wilson said.
"I think that was a really positive outcome of it, which is exactly what the Canada Job Grant is supposed to do. How it works is something entirely different and I think that every group probably has it's own idea of how something should work."
Alward and Clark, who were tasked by their counterparts to look at the program, said they're not happy with the status quo either and welcome input from employers as well as non-profit groups.
Ontario's Training, Colleges and Universities minister said he's already spoken to Kenney about the program, adding that the provinces aren't "looking for a fight."
But Ottawa needs to find another funding source, said Brad Duguid.
"We're not going to sell out our most vulnerable workers," he added.
"Aboriginal people, people with disabilities, youth, at-risk youth, newcomers. These are individuals in our province that we need to get into our labour market if we're going to have a prosperous economy going forward into the future."
It would be very difficult for the federal government to do it alone in provinces the size of Ontario and British Columbia, Duguid said.
Ottawa wouldn't get Ontario's share of the grants and would have to deliver the program without the province's training infrastructure, he said.
"We're hoping it doesn't get to that," he said.
"We're hoping that the federal government recognizes that this program — while there are some positive elements to it — it's doomed to failure the way it's structured now."