Mr. Chair, I am pleased to take part in tonight's discussion in committee of the whole. I wish to thank the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development for coming here tonight. I appreciate the lucidity of her answers and I apologize for some of my opposition colleagues and their lack of constructive comments and contribution to this debate.
Tonight, I would like to focus my comments and remarks on the subject of older workers. Make no mistake, older workers are a key concern for Canada's new government.
Our new government recognizes and appreciates the hardship faced by older workers who face unexpected changes to their work environment, especially when they live in communities and regions with limited employment alternatives.
Furthermore, we believe that older workers are a valuable and untapped resource in addressing labour market shortages in all industries. We believe that we should continue to encourage them to share their skills and talents well into retirement age.
That is why Canada's new government recently launched a new program to assist older workers in selected communities throughout Canada. In designing this new initiative, we considered the large labour market picture and the important role played by older workers.
Canada is currently undergoing a period of labour shortages. Employers are crying out for skilled workers. We recognize that this situation will only worsen if we do not act now to find solutions, solutions for today. Older workers form a major part of that solution, especially in my home province.
According to recent Statistics Canada findings, Nova Scotia currently has the second oldest population in Canada, with an average age of 41. In addition, we also have the second highest proportion of people older than 65 in Canada at 14.6%.
At a time of labour shortage and a shrinking labour supply, older workers are becoming a critical source of future labour force growth, growth that is critical to our prosperity, not just of Nova Scotia but the entire country.
Indeed, Judy Cutler, director of CARP, Canada's association for the 50-plus, has asked, “We have older workers who want to work. Why not embrace their expertise?”
Clearly, it is essential that we keep older workers active in the labour market. As a recent editorial in the Halifax Daily News indicated, “Giving older workers incentives to postpone retirement, or work part-time while collecting pensions, would at least temporarily ease the coming worker shortage”.
Moreover, Canada's new government has confidence in the continued ability of older workers to contribute to our future prosperity, and we are not alone. A recent OECD study strongly indicated that more focus should be given to the strategies that retrain, retain, and reintegrate older workers into the labour market as they represent “tremendous potential value to businesses, the economy and society”.
I am happy to report such positive assessments of older workers' potential contribution to the labour market. More and more organizations are eager to reintegrate such workers looking for meaningful employment. According to Brad Donnelly, an employment services manager with Manpower Incorporated in Atlantic Canada, tapping into older workers is something companies are increasingly looking to focus on. He said:
They're the target audience we're trying our hardest to recruit. We're seeing a lot more early retirees re-entering the workforce. They're looking to expand their horizons, not just to fill the time, but to learn a new skill.
It may be that the Liberals and the NDP do not believe that older workers are retrainable and can continue to make a contribution to society, but that is not the opinion of the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm we have for retraining is not shared by the opposition parties and their assessment of the prospects of older workers is excessively bleak and negative.
The NDP member for Acadie—Bathurst believes attempting to retrain and reintegrate those 55 years of age older in the labour market is a waste of time. He said, “--at age 55. Are they supposed to finish grade 12 and then go to university? That makes no sense”.
We have to realize that many people retire at age 55. They have many years left ahead of them to contribute to the workforce. A few short years ago, in the age of our fathers and our grandfathers, and our mothers and our grandmothers, people routinely worked well up into their seventies and even into their early eighties. They expected to. They made a major contribution to society and to this country. There is no reason to think that someone 55 years of age cannot continue to contribute to society. I would say there are quite a few people in this chamber 55 years of age and older who continue to contribute to society.
Listen to the Bloc member for Drummond commenting on the usefulness of retraining older workers. She said:
They want these workers to go back to school and learn a new trade. Let us be logical: that is impossible at 58. What is more, employers are hesitant to hire older workers, and the only way they can manage is to go on welfare.
I fundamentally disagree with that. We have many examples and many opportunities for potential employees, people who have left the workforce or need to be retrained, many of them, quite frankly, do not need to be retrained. They can continue to work in the field that they are already in. They have a lifetime of experience and expertise that they can share to retrain new workers to enter the workforce. They can assist younger Canadians, and in many instances new Canadians, to learn the skills and the trades that they need to become competent workers and successful members of society.
Make no mistake, Canada's new government does not share this negative assessment of older workers expressed by the NDP and Bloc members. On the contrary, older workers represent a key concern for our government. That is why we pay close attention to the insights gained following the conclusion of the older workers' pilot project initiative this past spring.
From this initiative, we learned that success stems from the approaches that include employment assistance services with some combination of training, job search techniques and work experience leading to new jobs. Flexibility in programming, attention to individual needs and learning new skills, practical and relevant to today's economy, were also deemed essential.
While this is true for workers across the country, we determined that older workers, particularly in communities with traditionally high unemployment, often have a harder time finding jobs. That is just the reality of the situation. We have to find ways to mitigate those realities.
That is why Canada's new government has now taken action based on evidence and lessons learned, as I mentioned earlier. We recently announced a new national cost-shared program with the provinces and territories for older workers in vulnerable communities.
To help meet the needs of workers aged 55 to 64 who have lost their jobs, we are investing $70 million in this program called targeted initiative for older workers. That is a substantial amount of money which we expect will help older workers to continue in the workforce.
This initiative will target communities that are experiencing ongoing high unemployment and/or communities that are reliant on a single employer or industry affected by significant downsizing. Under the initiative, older workers can receive income support while receiving various types of assistance such as skills assessment, counselling, skills upgrading and work experience for new jobs.
This initiative is in addition to the support provided through the employment insurance program, which currently provides $1.4 billion in income benefits for some 230,000 unemployed older workers annually. Moreover, through part II of the EI program, 80,000-plus workers aged 50 and over have received assistance in obtaining the skills necessary to get and maintain employment through training, work experience and aid to starting a business.
I would like to emphasize that given Canada's complex economic and demographic environment, it is critical that we fully access the longer term needs of all older workers and the potential effect on the labour market of any additional measures that we may undertake. That is why, as promised in budget 2006, Canada's new government will undertake a feasibility study of measures to better understand older workers' needs and potential measures to assist them.
It is clear that our government is attuned to the needs of older workers. We have programs in place now. We are working to address immediate needs and we are planning for the future.
We will continue to provide support to older workers. We will continue to work with our partners so that older workers, wherever they live across the country, know that this government has devoted its full efforts to finding the best long term approach. We will continue to meet the needs of older workers and, most importantly, we will continue to believe in older workers.
I will mention that the member for Edmonton—Mill Woods—Beaumont has been in the House all evening. If there is time for a question, he would certainly appreciate the opportunity to ask one.
As I conclude, I would ask the minister to further elaborate on the targeted initiative for older workers, understanding that older workers face challenges in the work environment in Canada regardless of where they work--