Last week’s report from the government’s workforce expert panel calls for students to complete work experience programs, but fails to map out the “billions of dollars” it will take to implement, says youth and labour lawyer Andrew Langille.
A plan to make co-op and work experience placements mandatory for Ontario’s high school, college and university students is being shrugged off as a pipe dream by a prominent labour and youth lawyer.
Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based lawyer who focuses on the school-to-labour market and serves as general counsel to the Canadian Intern Association, has dismissed an Ontario panel’s report recommending mandatory co-op and subsequent governmental aspirations as “unworkable.”
“It’s a non-starter … There’s a lot of what-ifs,” Langille told QP Briefing. “What I do see is a lot of buzzwords being repeated, but in terms of a concrete plan, it just isn’t there. It seems to be a waste of money from what I can tell.”
As suggested in last week’s report from the premier-appointed Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel, Ontario should be forking over cash for work experience or co-op placements for all high-school students, and another for those in college and university. That would include traditional (engineering and skilled trades) as well as non-traditional (liberal arts) career paths. The panel also recommended improving access to better labour market information, and to establish a “planning and partnership table” under a newly created government “workforce planning and development office,” to implement the plan.
Whereas Premier Kathleen Wynne indicated her intent to adopt the recommendations, Langille is skeptical about a lack of a roadmap – and therein lies the rub. Without a detailed plan, the plan has little chance of becoming a reality, he said. For one, making co-op mandatory would take “billions” that the province – with projections currently forecasting a $5-billion deficit and net debt expected to rise from the 2015-16 fiscal year’s $296 billion – simply doesn’t have.
“To ensure high quality sustainable placements there needs to be some level of funding, and for every student, that would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of billions of extra dollars injected into the system to set up the necessary infrastructure – that’s not going to happen,” Langille said.
He cited the University of Waterloo, which operates the most comprehensive co-op program in the country, with nearly 20,000 students enrolled over three semesters (two in the classroom, one on the job), and involves more than 6,000 employers. Even at the best of times, Langille said the institution struggles to find a co-op job for everyone.
“Bringing in 50 or 60 other institutions on line to deliver students good high quality placements, again, I don’t see it being workable,” he said.
Of particular concern is the makeup of the panel itself, whose members were comprised of business and education experts. The report cites and also bears resemblance to a previous one from the Business-Higher Education Roundtable (made up of university and college heads and corporate executives), which earlier this month also recommendedmandatory work experience programs for post-secondary students.
Both reports take the view that people are commodities – the government’s panel itself refers to students as “human capital” – and, despite consultation with organized labour and student groups, leaves out input from those key players from the final recommendations, Langille contends.
“One really wonders why only a narrow business oriented viewpoint is reflected … business is but one stakeholder in a larger discussion,” he said, adding: “What’s clear to me is that this whole system of work integrated learning in Ontario is broken to a certain extent, and I don’t see any acknowledgement of that in the panel’s report.”
Instead of pursuing the panel’s findings, the government should instead address the labour market itself, particularly precarious work, according to Langille. The Ministry of Labour has hinted it would indeed include precarious and temporary work in its ongoing Changing Workplaces Review, which will reform the Employment Standards Act and Labour Relations Act. The review is due to conclude later this year.
For now, the government has maintained that its panel recommendations serve as one way to address a skills gap in the market. Langille counters that gap “doesn’t exist.” The panel falls somewhere in the middle. It acknowledges there was scant evidence to support fears of a wide ranging lacking, rather Ontario’s job landscape reflects pockets of discrepancies depending on region and sector.
“No single solution or stakeholder would be able to close this gap,” the report noted.
The expert panel was appointed last December and included chair Sean Conway, who was education minister and minister of colleges, universities and skills development during the David Peterson era, Carol Campbell, who has been an education adviser to the Wynne government, Robert Hardt, president and CEO of Siemens Canada, Alison Loat, co-founder of the charity foundation Samara, and Pradeep Sood, chairman of Highbury Canco Corp., a food processing company.
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