Commentary: Senator Bellemare on advancing job skills development

The Canadian Business Resilience Network brings together a vast network of over 450 chambers of commerce and boards of trade and more than 100 of Canada’s leading business and industry associations, from all regions and sectors of the economy. The CBRN also provides a platform for members and leaders to discuss ideas for policy makers and the business community to consider. The opinions expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of CBRN or the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

This guest post is contributed by Senator Diane Bellemare, an independent Senator who was appointed to the Senate in 2012. An economist by training with a distinguished career, her priorities include employment, economic policy and Senate reform.

How and why did I get involved in the organization of a Jobs and Skills Roundtable?

To answer this question, let me first explain what motivates me deeply as an economist.

As an economist, I have worked on employment policies, training, and matters related to personal economic security. My involvement on these issues is a conscious choice that I made after realizing, during my doctoral studies, that financial security depends largely on one’s possibility of finding a decent job. It is also a common issue for all societies that want to prosper, strengthen the middle class, and include all groups in their democracy.

My subsequent professional experience has taught me that social dialogue is necessary to pursue this objective effectively. Full employment and shared and sustainable prosperity do not come easily. Everyone has a responsibility to pursue these goals, and we must work together to achieve them.

Let us return to the original question.

I was appointed to the Senate in 2012. The central role of a Senator is to bring a sober second thought to legislation passed in the House of Commons. However, as parliamentarians, we have the opportunity and, I would say, the duty to advocate on issues that are important to all Canadians.

I chose to get involved in issues related to the advancement of skill development because it is a fundamental issue in the 21st century. Skills have become the new world currency. Public education and initial education have been major challenges throughout the second half of the 20th century. And they still are. Today, however, the challenge resides in the development of skills throughout a person’s life. If Canada is known for its very high enrolment rates, the investment in lifelong learning could be improved.  

Before COVID-19, all international organizations, including the OECD, warned of the need to prepare for the advent of artificial intelligence and to adapt to technological change, the changing economic environment, climate change and the ageing of the population. The health crisis did not suddenly remove these important considerations and trends. Rather, it has added new ones. But one fact remains true: the increased pace of change requires that everyone upskill and reskill throughout their lifetime.

Canadians are aware of this. My office conducted a survey last December in which most Canadians – 56.4% of respondents, or about 11.4 million working Canadians – expressed an interest in skills training. Of those who want training, 40.4% of respondents, or about 4.6 million working Canadians, cannot afford or do not have the time to receive training. Millions of Canadians feel they need to improve specific essential skills such as reading skills (10.5% or 2.1 million), mathematical skills (26.4% or 5.4 million), and computer skills (48.4% or 9.9 million). More than 45% of respondents believe they should receive training to improve their job skills (46.3% or 9.4 million).

While the needs are real, there is no shared vision in Canada on how to address the challenge of lifelong skills development. This is not the case elsewhere in the world. For example, the European Union has developed a strategic vision shared by its Member States. The Federation of Australia has done the same.

In Canada, the distribution of constitutional powers and political relations between the federal and provincial/territorial governments shapes these issues. This explains, undoubtedly, to some extent, why this issue is treading water.

It is in this context that the idea of a Job Skills Round Table involving major economic players in the labour market came about, focusing on advancing a shared vision about lifelong skills development issues. The idea behind this roundtable is the following: if the labour market partners agree on a shared strategic vision, perhaps they could lead governments in Canada to share a common strategy.

It is important to note that this initiative’s objectives do not intend to interfere with the constitutional division of powers between the federal and provincial/territorial governments. Instead, the idea is to develop a shared vision on the nature of skill development needs, the language to be used to understand each other, stable and shared funding mechanisms, and the promotion of a lifelong learning culture. And all this while respecting the current division of powers between the federal government and the provinces and territories.

I initially worked on this project with Colleges and Institutes Canada, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Canadian Labour Congress. Since then, we have expanded the group to more than a dozen business, labour, and training associations.

To date, we have held two meetings, the first on January 31, 2020, and the second on May 27, 2020.

The participating groups have expressed their interest in this roundtable and recognize the beneficial contribution that social dialogue can make to the issue of lifelong learning and skills development. All parties also agreed that this informal roundtable could benefit from the services of the two commissioners representing workers and employers at the Employment Insurance Commission. That is why, on May 27th, we have agreed to continue the work under the guidance of the two commissioners.

I am delighted with this decision, which will provide a more formal basis for this roundtable. Thanks to the commissioners’ relationship with the Department, the discussions will benefit from the Department’s studies and research, thereby fostering a common vision among labour market partners.

In the short term, the roundtable, under the EI Commission, could help shape the training allocation parameters in the 2019 budget to ensure its effectiveness. This would be a great accomplishment and a demonstration of social dialogue’s value.

– Senator Diane Bellemare