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Closing skills gap an uncertain dream for Ottawa

We’ve all heard the quips about those Bachelor of Arts students getting their credentials to work in the local coffee shops.

It’s not quite the job-pairing program the federal government has in mind with its new “Canada Jobs Grant” announced in the recent budget.

However, in its effort to tackle the national skills mismatch in the trades, health care and engineering professions, it seems the federal government may also be chasing an uncertain dream.

Quebec has already rejected the federal government's plan to force provinces to match $5,000 in funding to train workers, and cede control of skills development to Ottawa. Other provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia aren't convinced about the merits of the program either.

Flaherty said Ottawa will negotiate and “work it out” with the provinces, telling reporters in Vancouver on Friday that, “we’ve worked well with the provinces on this issue since 2007, we just think we can do better.”

While the skilled-labour shortage does threaten to drag down Canadian economy, which is a national issue, CIBC chief economist Avery Shenfeld notes it's the provinces that control how many spaces are filled in post-secondary education programs.

“It’s in that role that the greatest progress can be made in matching Canadians’ skills to what the labour market is seeking, without necessarily spending any more money in the process,” Shenfeld wrote in a note.

So far, however, Shenfeld said the provinces haven’t achieved much in that role.

“Why are we still churning out so many education grads in provinces where the government, through its role in primary and secondary education, knows it won’t need them?” he wrote, citing law schools that can’t find jobs for their grads and of course the beleaguered BA student.

“What about the art history BA who ends up working as a grocery store clerk? — Not that there’s anything wrong with either the field of study or the job itself. The problem here is that to some extent, a BA no longer provides an employer the same sort of ‘signal’ about general capabilities as it did two generations earlier, when post-secondary educational attainment was rarer.”

According to Shenfeld, it’s up to Canadian society — by which he may mean parents of young adults about to enter post-secondary school — to decide whether education has a value “for its own purpose, rather than as a career booster.”

That leads to the next question of how much of that education should be subsidized.

“That too, is a question for the provinces,” Shenfeld said.