Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to respond to the motion presented by the member for Chambly—Borduas, which proposes the implementation of an income support program to assist older workers in all economic sectors and in all regions of this country.
I can assure the House that Canada's new government shares the hon. member's concern about the challenges faced by older workers in Canada.
As the Prime Minister emphasized recently, our nation needs older workers in the labour force if we are to maintain a strong and healthy economy. We recognize that Canadian workers have a great wealth of skills and experience to contribute to the labour market. It is therefore absolutely critical for the well-being of the nation and the well-being of older workers that we find ways to keep them in the labour force and maximize our use of their knowledge, expertise and diverse skill sets. Allow me to expand on why this is an increasingly pressing issue.
Like all OECD countries, Canada is facing the challenge of an aging population as a result of a declining birth rate and increased life expectancy. This resultant slowing of labour force growth means that we will be seeing skill shortages in key industries and occupations in regions across the country. I am sure all members know that these shortages could have a negative effect on GDP per capita growth and hence the standard of living of all Canadians.
If employment rates by age group and gender remain at current levels, Canada's labour force will increase by less than 5% over the next 50 years, compared to the 200% growth that took place between 1950 and the turn of the century.
It is a remarkable and revealing fact that older workers in Canada have become our principal source of labour force growth in recent years. Between 1995 and 2005, their participation in the labour force saw an increase of 11%. There is no doubt that this recent reversal of the long decline in the labour force participation rate for older workers is good news for them and for our nation.
Nevertheless, older workers' participation in the labour force is still far below the rate for so-called prime age workers. In 2005, the older workers' labour force participation rate was 58%, as opposed to 87% for prime age workers. The difference between the two rates represents a tremendous loss of skills and expertise from which our labour force could greatly benefit.
Looking to the future, we see that the potential of older workers is even greater. Between 2000 and 2020, the portion of our population aged 55 to 64 will increase by about 50%. Given the economic repercussions of a declining labour force, we simply cannot afford to let older workers' skills and experience go unused. This is an issue the government is committed to tackling.
We are very aware of the particular challenges that older workers encounter when they try to rejoin the labour market after an early exit, and certainly we are very sympathetic to their plight. We know, for example, that recent closures and layoffs in the textile and pulp and paper industries have affected a large number of older workers and that some older Canadians have difficulty re-entering the workforce. These are challenges we are working to resolve.
As this House is aware, under part II of the Employment Insurance Act, unemployed Canadians, including older workers, may qualify for active re-employment benefits to help them find and keep new employment. These programs range from training and skills upgrading to work experience and support in becoming self-employed. I am pleased to inform the House that over 80,000 older workers over the age of 50 participated in EI part II programs last year.
As I noted earlier, we believe, as the OECD suggests, that optimizing older workers' participation in the labour market is one of the best means we have to offset the decline in labour force growth that we and many other nations are experiencing.
It is for all these reasons that budget 2006 provided $400 million in funding to the forestry sector to assist Canadians affected by global economic adjustments. This is also why we are conducting a feasibility study to evaluate current and potential measures to address the challenges faced by displaced older workers. These challenges include such diverse options as the need for improved training and the possibility of enhanced income support. The feasibility study will also provide recommendations on how we can best assist older workers over the long term.
In the meantime we are continuing to address the challenges of unemployed older workers. We will continue to focus on offering laid off workers, including older workers, assistance such as opportunities for skills development and new work experience. As part of this process we will be building on lessons learned from government pilot projects specifically designed to meet older workers' needs. The older workers pilot projects initiative, carried out between 1999 to May of this year, showed us for example that the best outcomes were achieved through approaches that combined employment assistance services like job counselling and job placement services with training, marketing and job experience.
Participants in the older workers pilot projects made it clear that older workers wanted training that was practical and relevant. I believe that determination illustrates just how much older workers in Canada want to continue to contribute to our economy in a practical and concrete way that makes the most of their abilities.
The government is well aware of the many solutions available to mitigate the slowdown in labour force growth, such as increased immigration, but it appears that one of the most practical and viable solutions is to access the untapped potential of our older workers. If the participation rates for Canadians aged 50 years to 64 years were to increase on average just one-half of a percentage point each year, we could increase labour supply by 13% by 2030.
These statistics tell a story of tremendous potential that is critical to the future prosperity of the nation.
In summary, I am confident that the government's feasibility study will help us to arrive at the best possible solutions for ensuring the crucial potential of older workers is realized now and in the decades to come. For this reason, I am unable to support the motion presented by the member for Chambly—Borduas. Perhaps there will be some amendments. I look forward to members' questions.