Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House this afternoon to move concurrence in the ninth report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities presented on Wednesday, December 12, 2012, with respect to labour and skills shortages in Canada. The subtitle of the report is “Addressing Current and Future Challenges”.
There is no doubt that a vital competitive economy in the global era requires the development of a skilled workforce that provides Canadian employers with the workers they need and that provides Canadian workers with the opportunities they deserve. In order to achieve that goal Canada needs to find the right match between skills and employment opportunities so that we do not suffer from skills shortages and high unemployment at the same time.
My NDP colleagues and I supported the standing committee's report on labour shortages in Canada, and we were particularly pleased to see recommendations on incentives for training and labour mobility. However, we also think there are some important areas in which the recommendations did not go far enough in addressing the crucial challenges that Canada faces.
Let me begin with some general areas of concern that were raised in testimony by a number of witnesses who appeared before our committee.
It is true that labour shortages were already being felt prior to the 2008-2009 recession, especially in the western provinces. The recession eased this pressure, but already shortages are reappearing in certain regions and sectors.
Given the aging population, it is likely that labour and skills shortages will increase, but this will not be true for all regions nor for all occupational groups. While shortages may be less severe in occupations requiring fewer qualifications, low-skilled occupations are also experiencing shortages, especially in regions with strong and rapid economic growth.
The first finding of the study, which was reiterated by many witnesses, is that no single solution will magically solve the challenges caused by labour and skills shortages. Various complementary solutions must be identified.
One solution that was mentioned often by the witnesses who appeared as part of the study was to make all the essential information on future labour needs available so that educational programs can be created and modified accordingly, and so that consequently young people can choose occupations that will be in high demand.
Obviously that will not be possible without high-quality labour market information. The holders of these data must work together to avoid duplication and find ways to improve both the quality of the information as well as the distribution of all LMI products to the people who can benefit the most from its use.
Another solution the committee heard throughout the study was to maximize the untapped potential of individuals and certain groups of the Canadian population that have a lower participation rate or a higher unemployment rate than average, such as mature workers, people with disabilities, aboriginal peoples and recent immigrants. These groups represent a huge pool of untapped talents and could help address a significant part of the skills shortages.
Other suggestions made by witnesses include increasing labour force mobility, increasing awareness of trades and professions in demand that are not popular with young people, providing workers with adequate on-the-job training, increasing the level of basic skills, improving worker productivity and increasing reliance on partnerships between various levels of government, companies, educational institutions, students and workers.
Of course, special mention was made of the temporary foreign worker program, around which there was a significant consensus that there had to be reform. Given the recent media spotlight on the temporary foreign worker program, I do not think that will surprise any member in the House.
The recommendations in the report address many of these concerns. In fact, there were 38 recommendations made by the committee, most of which my NDP colleagues and I agreed with. Let me re-emphasize the word “most”, because as one can imagine, on a Conservative-dominated committee, much of the language in this report is both self-congratulatory and slanted to the needs of employers only. Nonetheless, we did find some significant common ground.
There were, however, also areas of significant disagreement, and I want to spend the better part of my remaining time on those areas. These areas represent a huge missed opportunity, and I would hope that moving forward, the government will take a second look at our minority report and use it to shape additional measures that were lacking in the original recommendations.
Let me begin with comments about labour market information.
Time and time again the committee heard from witnesses that labour market information in Canada is not good enough. We heard that the data are not granular enough and do not allow for sufficient breakdown by occupation or region. The data are also not published frequently enough and do not allow for high-quality projections of shortages in the future. In fact, the committee's final report offers numerous instances in which the testimony from industries and the data available from current surveys disagree on whether or not there is or will be a skills or labour shortage in a given industry.
The Certified General Accountants Association recently published an examination of available sources of data that concluded that our current LMI is not good enough to enable policy-makers to effectively deal with labour shortages. It recommends “...closing the statistical information gap and improving the relevance and reliability of labour market statistics at the regional and occupational levels”.
Given that good LMI is the linchpin to good skills training and labour force development policy as well as crucial to good immigration policy and management of the temporary foreign worker program, we find the report's recommendation on LMI to be very weak indeed. We need more than better publicity for the data that are already being produced.
The experts on the advisory panel on labour market information established by the Forum of Labour Market Ministers have already provided an excellent blueprint of the steps that could be taken to improve the collection, analysis and use of LMI in Canada. For that reason, my NDP colleagues and I recommended that the government take steps to implement the recommendations made in the final report of the advisory panel on labour market information.
We also noted in our report that the weakness of our labour market information has been exacerbated by cuts to Statistics Canada and its surveys and by the elimination of core funding for sector councils, which play a crucial role in bringing together industry partners and provide very useful sector-specific LMI. Therefore, we also recommended that Statistics Canada be provided with the funding it needs to improve labour force-related surveys and that core funding be restored to sector councils.
Moving on to a second area that merited additional attention, I want to focus next on the need to develop the Canadian labour force.
While employers are experiencing shortages of both skilled and low-skilled labour, unemployment in Canada remains high, with six unemployed Canadians for every job vacancy. The Conservatives' response has been to blame the unemployed for their unemployment, to reduce access to employment insurance while trying to force Canadians to move to other parts of the country and to use the temporary foreign worker program to drive down wages.
By contrast, New Democrats believe that Canadian workers and employers benefit when Canadians are given the tools they need to be able to take available jobs. That is why we believe that investments in skills training are so important. We laud the report's recommendation that the government consider incentives to employers to invest in on-the-job training. However, we also recommend that the government review its bilateral agreements with the provinces to ensure that they provide maximum benefit to Canadians in need of training. For instance, the fact that the largest part of funding for skills training provided through labour market development agreements is limited to those who qualify for employment insurance benefits makes no sense when more than 6 in 10 unemployed Canadians are not qualifying for EI.
Similarly, we believe that Canadians need support for labour mobility rather than to be threatened with the loss of their EI benefits if they do not move for the jobs. We are pleased that the report recommends support for a tax credit for travel and lodging for those working more than 80 kilometres away from their residence. This is a proposal I have been pushing for years by introducing Bill C-201, an act to amend the Income Tax Act for travel and accommodation deduction for tradespersons. The building and construction trades have been lobbying for this bill for over 30 years, and it continues to be one of the key priorities at each and every one of their legislative conferences.
In every Parliament the government has made vague promises of progress to come; then each Parliament ends without concrete action. The time to rectify that situation is now, and I appreciate the committee's support in this regard. The ask is simple: allow tradespersons and apprentices to deduct travel and accommodation expenses from their taxable income so that they can secure and maintain employment at a construction site that is more than 80 kilometres away from their home.
At a time when some regions of the country suffer from high unemployment while others suffer from temporary skilled labour shortages, the bill offers a solution to both. Best of all, it is revenue neutral for the government because the cost associated with the income tax cut is more than made up by the savings in employment insurance.
Now that the Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons, there are no more excuses. The government can and must support the bill and act unequivocally to support Canada's building and construction trades. I am hoping to be able to test the government's resolve on this issue in the very near future.
Let me just give a quick shout out to some of the people from my hometown of Hamilton who have been instrumental in putting this issue on Parliament's agenda. In particular, I am thinking of Joe Beattie, Tim Penfold, Geoff Roman, Gary Elleker, Dave MacMaster, Paul Leger and all the members of the Hamilton-Brantford Ontario Building and Construction Trades Council, whose support for the bill has been unwavering and who, frankly, were the first to bring the issue to my attention.
I could talk about my bill and the need for its speedy adoption all day. Nonetheless, I recognize that my time here is limited and I also want to get some other issues on the record with respect to the current skills shortage.
One of the other barriers to labour mobility that was raised over and over again was the lack of affordable housing. Regions that are experiencing an economic boom cannot develop housing fast enough to offer workers reasonable accommodation at prices they can afford. Therefore, in our minority report we recommended that the government support NDP Bill C-400, which called on the government to create a national affordable housing strategy in co-operation with the provinces and territories.
Members will know that in the time since we tabled our report, the Conservatives defeated that bill in this House. To New Democrats and housing activists from coast to coast to coast, that was a devastating rejection of a desperately needed program. Canada remains the only G8 country without a housing strategy, while 1.5 million families and individuals are unable to access adequate, affordable housing. It is a national disgrace. Certainly the evidence we heard at committee confirmed that the lack of affordable housing should have been a priority for our federal government.
Similarly, testimony confirmed that the Conservatives also mismanaged the temporary foreign worker program, allowing employers to bring in temporary foreign workers with little to no monitoring for compliance with the rules of the program. The result has been that Canadian workers have lost out on jobs that should have been available to them, while temporary foreign workers face exploitation and rights violations.
If managed properly, the temporary foreign worker program should provide a temporary solution to a serious problem while emphasizing a longer-term response that promotes the best interests of Canadian workers and employers and our economy. The government has announced a review of the temporary foreign worker program, and New Democrats recommend that this review be conducted in a thorough and transparent manner, with a report tabled in the House of Commons as soon as the review is concluded.
Although this is another topic about which I could talk for hours, I will keep moving along.
Let us look next at the need for effective partnerships. In its skills strategy, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that all relevant stakeholders must be involved in order to ensure an effective, comprehensive approach to skills policies. Designing effective skills policies requires more than coordinating different sectors of public administration and aligning different levels of government: a broad range of non-governmental actors, including employers, professional and industry associations, chambers of commerce, sector councils, trade unions, education and training institutions and individuals must all be involved.
New Democrats agree that policies are stronger when all relevant stakeholders are involved and consulted, and that is why we recommend that the development of policy options to improve labour market information to ensure a better match between the skills of graduates and the needs of employers and to develop strong curricula must always include all relevant stakeholders: federal, provincial, territorial and aboriginal governments, businesses and industry, employee representatives and labour unions, educational institutions and student associations as well as not-for-profit groups.
Speaking of students, my NDP colleagues and I respect that one of the major goals of post-secondary education is skills training. However, we also recognize that this is not the only goal for Canada's colleges and universities and that there is a role for pure research.
We also respect academic freedoms and the rights of scholars to freely choose their subject areas and research projects. Therefore, we recommend that consultations on curricula always be undertaken with appropriate respect for the multiple roles of post-secondary educational institutions.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not say a few words about the participation of aboriginal peoples in the labour market. Our committee heard some very compelling testimony in that regard. As the report notes, aboriginal peoples' labour market outcomes must be improved to ensure that aboriginal peoples benefit from resource development to reduce aboriginal poverty and to provide the skilled labour force that Canada will need in the future.
A key element of aboriginal labour market outcomes is education, yet the report offers no recommendations on aboriginal education at all. If educational outcomes are to improve for aboriginal students, they need adequately funded education that respects their unique culture and history in safe and healthy school facilities.
First nations education is the jurisdiction of the federal government, which does not provide equitable funding for first nations children.
While budget 2012 provided some new funds for first nations education, only eight new schools were built out of 170 needed, and so far, no money has been committed directly to first nations schools for front-line education services.
According to the Assembly of First Nations, $500 million is needed to bring funding for first nations K-12 education to parity with non-aboriginal Canadians. The AFN has also noted that a gap in funding for post-secondary education has prevented more than 13,000 first nations students from pursuing higher education. Those realities are completely unacceptable. That is why my NDP colleagues and I recommended that the government provide sufficient and equitable funding for first nations K-12 education as well as post-secondary education, including vocational training and apprenticeships, and that the government remove the punitive 2% cap on funding increases to first nations.
The Conservatives' failure to take consultations seriously has already derailed this process once, with the chiefs withdrawing from the process due to inadequate consultation. That is why we further recommended that the government recognize first nations' jurisdiction over education and abide by the federal government's duty to consult by holding extensive and meaningful consultations leading to the creation of a first nations education act that respects first nations' rights, culture and history.
The federal government also provides funding for Inuit education through territorial transfers and land claims agreements. The education system is seriously failing Inuit youth, with only 25% graduating from high school. Those who do manage to graduate are still not at the same skill level as non-aboriginal students.
The report of Thomas Berger, a conciliator appointed to resolve differences in the negotiations for the implementation of the land claims agreement, found that education was a key factor in impeding progress on Inuit representation in the public service. It called for an increase of $20 million annually to education funding beyond what is provided through territorial financing.
The same holds true for other jobs. Inuit youth need culturally and linguistically appropriate education that enables them to stay in school and graduate with the skills they need to join the workforce. New Democrats therefore recommended that the government increase funding for Inuit education beyond the funding provided through territorial financing and land claims agreements.
Finally, the committee heard from multiple witnesses that the aboriginal skills and employment training strategy, ASETS, has been very successful in providing the training aboriginal Canadians need and the links with employers that help them find jobs after their training. However, the committee also heard that funding has been frozen since 1996, despite the fact that the need is greater than ever as the aboriginal population grows.
ASETS holders have also noted the heavy reporting burden that comes with their funding. A review of the program is beginning, and New Democrats recommend that the federal government include ASETS holders in the ongoing program review in a meaningful way and work with them to establish a process for stable, predictable and adequate funding to maintain and improve this highly successful program.
Let me try to sum up. To meet our labour force goals, we need more and better labour market data; incentives and/or requirements for employers to offer training programs; more support for workers seeking training; better EI programs; more affordable education programs; enhanced support for labour mobility; the ability of immigrants here to have their credentials recognized and a much faster and more efficient process; and better support for an immigration program that does more than simply provide cheap foreign labour with no path to citizenship.
Overall, we need to see the skills shortage as one important issue among a series of important labour market issues, the most important of which remains the still very high unemployment rate. With 1.4 million Canadians out of work, it is hard to make the argument that we have a national labour shortage. What we have are regional shortages that cannot overshadow the fact that the Conservative government's most lasting failure is to develop and implement a strategy to create Canadian jobs. Until that happens, at best we will be tinkering at the margins.