In the aftermath of the economic crisis, few policy issues have attracted as much attention as skills development. Discussion has focused on the types of skills that employees need to ensure they can successfully navigate an ever-more demanding labour market, and those that employers need to have on hand to help them survive in an ever-more competitive marketplace. This has been accompanied by concerns about skills gaps and mismatches — about whether some Canadians are making poor choices when it comes to their education and training, and whether the labour market is beset with a paradoxical combination of over- and under-qualified workers.
In this context, attention has continued to focus on the need for better labour market information to guide the decisions of employees, employers and policymakers alike. As an advisory panel on the issue argued in 2009, “a good LMI [labour market information] system will help to improve the matching of people and jobs both in times of labour shortages and high unemployment. And a good LMI system is always necessary to make sure that the right policy decisions are made to improve the economy’s performance and lower unemployment.”
In particular, those concerned with the need to better align workers’ skills with the needs of employers have identified two significant shortcomings with respect to labour market information in Canada: an insufficient level of granularity in the data that tell us what is really going on in the labour market, and a lack of evidence about what kinds of skills training programs are actually succeeding in helping employees keep their jobs or transition to new ones.
It is for this reason that the announcement in the recent federal budget that Ottawa will spend $75 million a year to establish “a new organization to support skills development and measurement in Canada” — a skills lab — struck many as a much- needed breakthrough. One commentator argued that the skills lab proposal is “a welcome addition to the current skills debate in Canada” because it “identifies the critical questions we must seek to ask and answer, and acknowledges what we do not yet know.” The proposed organization “has the potential to serve as an invaluable complement, coordinator and clearinghouse for these efforts to highlight the best ideas and to develop and disseminate the best solutions.”
In order to successfully implement the skills lab proposal, a number of questions will need to be answered — including questions about what it will measure and how, about the right mix of descriptive and experimental research, and about how it will fit into the complex network of actors and agencies that are already active in this policy landscape. More critical than these, however, is the question of governance — and it is on this question that this paper will focus. It is the skills lab’s governance structure that will ultimately determine how successful it will be.
As others have already recognized, “if an appropriate governance structure is not established, it is impossible to develop the kind of LMI system we need.” This is true in large part because of the inescapable fact that labour market policies and the information that underpins them unfold in Canada in the context of intersecting federal-provincial-territorial jurisdictions. As a result, “a higher level of co- operation and coordination among governments is thus now required to make sure that Canadians get the LMI they need and deserve. And this will require making sure that the LMI system has the appropriate governance structure.”
The starting point for the development of an appropriate governance structure is the recognition that the skills lab cannot be a solely federal initiative. For the skills lab to succeed, provinces and territories — the primary policy actors in the field of skills training and development — must not simply be consulted; they must actively participate in designing, mandating and overseeing it from the outset.
In the absence of some quick and creative thinking about how Ottawa can co-design and co-govern institutions jointly with the provinces and territories, the skills lab will never live
up to expectations. It will inevitably founder on the same jurisdictional rocks as previous well-intentioned but poorly conceived federal initiatives in the area of skills development — an area that is hardly an exclusively federal responsibility.