Ex-minister John Manley says Ottawa and industry need to address the skills gap

TORONTO – Skills shortages have not yet grown into a national issue, but do have the potential to impact the economy if Ottawa and industry don’t start working together, says former federal cabinet minister John Manley.

“We haven’t accepted some of the shrill statements that there is a skill crisis in Canada,” Manley, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, said in a speech Thursday.

“Yes we could use plumbers, pipefitters and electricians in the oilsands… but this is not a national shortage.”

Manley cited a recent survey by the council on the needs of 100 of the country’s largest companies. It found that 57 per cent felt the skills shortage was a “moderate” problem, while 11 per cent called it a “big” problem.

The survey also found that respondents said the most difficult categories to fill were in engineering, technology and business, particularly in Alberta.

But it wasn’t just technical jobs that companies were having difficulty filling. Also cited were positions that required “soft skills” such as communication and managerial duties.

Manley said the shortages will only be exacerbated in the coming years as Baby Boomers begin to retire.

In the meantime, Ottawa needs to ensure there’s a national strategy in place to ensure there are enough workers to fill in those gaps, while industry needs to step up to provide more skills training for its current workers.

“I think we need to get at the core of why we’re training a lot of people for jobs that don’t exist,” he said in the half-hour speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto.

For years, the Harper government and industry have complained about labour shortages due to a lack of skills and has introduced several measures, including tighter unemployment insurance rules, as part of an effort to force the jobless to go further afield.

Earlier this month, the federal government once again urged provinces and territories to embrace the Canada Job Grant, which would provide a grant of $15,000 per worker to employers for jobs training. The grant would made up of equal contributions from Ottawa, employers, and provinces and territories.

The idea has not been welcomed by provinces, even those hungry for skilled workers, because the funds would come from Ottawa diverting 60 per cent or about $300 million of transfer payments to the provinces and territories.

Instead, provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta, want Ottawa to ease up on recent restrictions on the use of temporary foreign workers.

Manley said the council’s proposals are long-term initiatives, and agreed that Ottawa should consider being more flexible when it comes to companies hiring foreign workers to fill labour shortages in the short term.

In his speech, he also noted that there is room for vast improvement in the Canadian education system, which has seen young Canadians fall behind their international peers in areas like math and literacy.

Citing a study published last month by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Manley said Canadians between 16 and 24 years were ranked below average in both literacy and numeracy compared with their counterparts in 23 other developed countries and regions.

“The only thing we really aspire to get the gold medal in is hockey,” said Manley.

“How about we have two things? Hockey and math skills? And see if we can build a greater country.”

The Canadian Council of Chief Executives represents 150 CEOs and entrepreneurs at companies which control assets totalling $4.5 trillion. The companies employ 1.5 million workers and make up more than half of the firms listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.