In all the excitement over Christmas I forgot to write about a policy initiative which may or may not find its way into the coming budget. It’s something called the “Canada Lifelong Learning Fund” (CLLF), and it is among the weakest ideas to float around Ottawa since the Liberals came to power.
The idea comes from the Minister of Finance’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, chaired by McKinsey Global Managing Partner Dominic Barton, which issued a paper called Learning Nation: Equipping Canada’s Workforce With Skills for the Future back in early December. The paper starts out by diagnosing skills challenges facing the economy. The terms are slightly too “gee-whiz-isn’t AI something” but are basically correct (and not a million miles from how I described them here ten months ago). It then does that McKinsey/World Bank thing for a few pages describing various related initiatives around the world which a) are designed to show off the intelligence of the client in having hired a consultant this worldly and b) always contain an example from Singapore.
(aside: why is it that every McKinsey report talking about stackable credentials uses some obscure unnamed example out of New South Wales when Quebec has had a stackable credential system for 30 years or more called the Baccalaueat par cumul, in which three consecutive 30-credit certificate programs equal a 90-credit bachelor’s degree? For example, there are U de Montréal’s programs. If the rest of Canada wants a model, it’s right here).
Anyways, after some not particularly transparent financial analysis in which the committee comes up with a magical number of “an extra $15 billion annually” required to deal with the skills challenges of the coming two decades, and some boring roles/responsibilities of governments/employers/individuals which seems to be pretty rote in these documents, the document comes up with A PLAN. To wit:
- Government of Canada Employment Centres should become hubs of hands-on career training and guidance;
- There should be a “federally-governed” CLLF, funded partly by governments and partly through (presumably mandatory) contributions from employers and workers (the wording of this is very similar to one of former NDP leadership hopeful Guy Caron’s policy proposals, which I analysed back here).
How to judge these two proposals? Well, the first approach is on a pure policy level. The employment centres idea is nice, I suppose, though the devil is in the details. The latter is a bit on the weird side. The proposal seems to call for mandatory contributions, like pensions or EI, but most of the ideas for how to spend the money are not similarly based on entitlements to individual accounts. Instead, they talk about using the fund to “co-fund employee training initiatives by large companies undergoing major technological or business-model transformations that require their employees to acquire new skills” and “co-funding initiatives from SME consortia organized along sector/geographical lines to upgrade skills of member companies’ employees”. To which the obvious questions are: “isn’t that what the Canada Jobs Grant was supposed to do?” and “wait a minute: the feds are going to decide which companies do and do not get money from a fund to which all companies are supposed to pay in?”
But the second way to analyse this is from a constitutional angle. And here is where it gets interesting: somehow this report, which spans the globe for policy models, appears to have missed one tiny detail about Canada, which is that our federal government devolved training to the provinces 20 years ago. Maybe the federal Liberals, having floated a lot of crazy ideas with dubious respect for constitutional responsibilities over the last few months with minimal push-back from the provinces are getting complacent and thinking they can walk into any policy area they please. But for anyone actually old enough to remember Meech Lake and the decade of hell that kicked off, this proposal sets a lot of alarm bells ringing. Whenever the feds get to thinking they know more about an area of provincial responsibility than the provinces themselves do, disaster follows. Ignorance and arrogance do not mix well.
Possibly I am overreacting here. It’s just a recommendation from an advisory committee, right? And one whose recommendations the federal bureaucracy doesn’t always accept? And even those they do accept – say, FutureSkillsLab – they clearly don’t care very much about (if PMO/PCO actually thought SkillsLab was important, they would not have allowed its launch to become the long drawn-out farce that it has become).
Well, maybe. I hope that’s all it is. After all, it’s not that the idea of more funds for training, or of finding more innovative ways to help mid-career workers raise their skills is wrong. It’s simply that the committee’s plan is deeply half-baked. The Government can and should do better than this.