I have been watching with interest the Atlantic Premiers Consultations on EI reform and feel these discussions are perhaps missing the balanced perspective of the business community.
With respect to the seasonal industries of our economy, challenges facing these sectors are not inherently limited to employment insurance.
I have been connected to the tourism industry for several decades and work with many clients across our seasonal industries; the labour challenges are neither new nor surprising. Limitations to engage employees in these sectors are a structural function of demographic changes and stagnating business models. Both issues are afforded no quick solution.
If the disparity between local wages and those achieved through commuting is so great that the sacrifices of the commute are deemed beneficial, then there is a bigger economic issue.
It is a difficult decision to commute for work, and few would chose this path if there was a comparable option closer to “home”. Our provincial challenges are competitiveness, broad based economic development, job growth and attractiveness for migration.
Our issues will be further compounded when the $30 billion shipbuilding project in Nova Scotia comes on-line over the course of the coming decade. Modifying employment insurance programing will not address the fact that our local economy is not producing compelling employment.
We need people to fill the roles we currently have, and we need people to fill the roles an evolving economy provides — in both scenarios we are short the necessary people.
Few business owners were prepared to present before the Atlantic Premiers Panel, in evidence. What has been expressed outside the panel is that business owners are experiencing a productivity limiting labour shortage. The business community endorses any mechanism that increases the pool of available trained employees. This should be the objective of policy change; and is the fundamental goal of Skills P.E.I.
Even the Chamber of Commerce affirms that business owners cannot find local employees. As a consequence they are navigating the complexities of international recruitment.
The misalignment of localized high unemployment rates with an unavailable workforce confounds the oversight bodies monitoring the labour market. What we have is a malalignment of skills, not entirely a shortage of labour force. We still must attract absent skills to our economy.
The Department of Innovation through Skills P.E.I. is a principal partner in transitioning from employment insurance. The primary mandate of this provincial department is to support clients from EI and into the local workforce. Clearly, this department would be a strong advocate for any change aligning with the expansion of the local labour market.
Approximately $30 million is transferred annually from the federal government through several programs administered by Skills P.E.I. to ensure unemployed clients are effectively integrated back into the labour market. One of these programs is coming to a scheduled end in March of this year.
If a mandate of this investment was to reduce unemployment rates, have we failed? December 2013’s unemployment rate was 11.5% (compared to national rate of 7.2%), 2012’s average rate was 11.3%, 2011’s average was 11.3%, and 2010 was 11.2%. We are trending the wrong way.
Consultation is underway to better design programs that meet the needs of our current environment. There is concern that a national strategy may not accommodate regional uniqueness. I would support the notion that regional tweaking needs to be a consideration so long as the outcome is assisting people to engage in the local labour market.
Business owners would welcome an open, transparent, accessible and accountable system that can be accessed by employers who want to hire or train employees. The proposed job-grant program cost shares training of new employees across stakeholders.
What employers demand is qualified workers. If they are not in the labour pool, they must be recruited or created. Programs must support recruitment and creation, and employers must seek as widely as is required to meet their needs.
If “a” job-grant provides the flexibility to select a great potential employee and support training to mold that individual, I would endorse such an approach. Programs that provide subjective funding or sponsorship of jobs that would otherwise be filled are inefficient and antiquated.
While consultation is obviously a good idea, what is the expected outcome of the process? In the end, we have the fortune of locally administering a federal program; both institutions must work in harmony. The forgotten stakeholder is the business owner and programs must be designed that meet the uniqueness of a local labour environment and needs of the local employers.
Blake Doyle is The Guardian's small business columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.