Slow approach to training hurts Canada, experts warn
National skills agenda urgent, panelists advise
Allan Thompson
OTTAWA - The federal government is not moving fast enough to make sure Canadians acquire the skills needed for this country to keep pace in the world, a series of expert panels has concluded.

Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart is to release three separate reports today from national roundtables on skills and learning, reports which make concrete recommendations for government action.

The reports urge the federal government to move more quickly to create a skills and learning agenda, to use tax incentives to encourage companies to let employees go back to school and to do more to capitalize on the potential of immigrants.

The national roundtables were created to consult industry, unions, academics, provincial and territorial governments, voluntary organizations and key opinion leaders on the subject of skills and learning.

Stewart used a speech last February to warn that a critical shortage of skilled workers could mushroom unless the federal government changed its approach to education and skills training.

And a poll conducted for the federal government by Ekos Research Associates showed a groundswell of public support for the notion that skills and knowledge are the ``linchpin'' for Canada's innovation and global success.

Ekos polled more than 3,400 people across the country in April and May and concluded that the issue of innovation and skills are very much in the public consciousness.

When asked to rank how important a number of factors would be in determining Canada's future economic success, the vast majority of people polled picked ``skills and knowledge levels of the workforce,'' as their first choice.

In fact, skills and knowledge were chosen by far more respondents as important to Canada's economic success than such factors as lowering taxes or the strength of the Canadian dollar.

An over-all ``innovation agenda'' will be unveiled this fall by the Department of Human Resources and Department of Industry.

The roundtables were conducted for the human resources department by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, the Canadian Policy Research Networks and the Conference Board of Canada.

The roundtable reports hand down a number of general recommendations while also calling for specific action:

To promote lifelong learning, there is a need to enhance the image of non-university skills and trades and to make sure people can move with ease between their jobs and the educational system.

One way to make movement between the workplace and the educational system more seamless would be to grease it with tax incentives for employer-sponsored training.

Making it easier for high-tech companies to bring in temporary workers should be considered, the panels say.

The roundtables also identified a need to work more closely with immigrants.

For one thing, highly skilled immigrants are still in short supply in some critical high-tech industries, so it would make sense to make it easier for companies to bring temporary workers to Canada.

The government should also find a way to address the fact that less skilled immigrants are having more difficulty getting jobs.

One roundtable called for greater support for early childhood education, because studies have shown that literacy skills and the ability to learn are rooted in childhood.

To that end, 1 per cent of Canada's gross domestic product should be earmarked for early childhood education by 2005.

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