LABOUR SHORTAGE : Quebec pledges nearly $1-billion to boost work force

Quebec pledges nearly $1-billion to boost work force

Globe & Mail
March 19, 2008

QUEBEC — The Quebec government is turning to welfare recipients and the unemployed to fill the huge gap in the province's labour shortage.

Premier Jean Charest announced a three-year, nearly $1-billion aid package that includes incentives for the jobless and tax credits for companies to help boost the province's work force.

Based on a model in Denmark, Quebec's private sector will invest close to $440-million in job training to recruit workers, with the province more than matching that funding with $548-million. The program aims to fill more than half of the 700,000 jobs that will be available by 2011, caused by an aging work force on the verge of retirement.

Anyone willing to work will be given every opportunity to get a job, Mr. Charest said yesterday.

“We are saying to them we will do everything we can to help you get into the labour market. Employers and unions are saying we are going to be part of this also,” the Premier said. “It's the most comprehensive plan I've ever seen.”

One of the most striking examples of the extent of Quebec's labour shortage can be found in the North Shore community of Baie-Comeau, where as many as 600 of the 1,500 workers at the Alcoa aluminum smelter will retire in the next five years.

“These jobs pay on average $60,000 a year. They are good jobs. But you know what? They have a problem in Baie Comeau. Alcoa has a challenge,” Mr. Charest said.

Quebec currently has 183,000 welfare recipients capable of working. Within three years, the program is expected to attract as many as 50,000 into the work force through incentives rather than coercion.

For instance, a welfare recipient living alone earning $7,317 a year will be able to enroll in the program, receive training at minimum wage along with a $200-a-month supplement that will boost annual earnings to $17,263.

“We have to start by extending a hand to those who need help,” Mr. Charest said. “I don't know anyone who actually chooses to live on welfare …Those who are in that situation need help.”

Employers who train and hire handicapped individuals and immigrants will be eligible for a 40-per-cent tax credit on salaries. Over the three-year period, 4,800 businesses are expected to join the job training program.

Both business and labour leaders were on hand to support the new initiative and have co-operated with the government to set up the framework for what they consider an ambitious program.

“Work is the rampart against poverty and an important lever for social integration,” said Claudette Carbonneau, president of one of the province's leading labour organizations, the Confdration des syndicats nationaux. “The government has adopted a novel approach that is devoted to improving manpower training through voluntary means that excludes coercive measures.”

The so-called employment pact between government labour and business comes at a crucial time when employers face what the president of the Quebec Manufacturers and Exporters Association called the “perfect storm.” Jean-Luc Trahan said that international competition, the value of the Canadian dollar, high energy costs and the slumping U.S. economy have combined to batter certain sectors of the Quebec economy.

The economy will have to retool, Mr. Trahan said, and “with programs aimed at helping to train specialized workers and improve productivity, the employment pact will certainly ensure the success of the manufacturing sector.”

The program will be made available on April 1, with the government expecting to show concrete results – especially among young welfare recipients – early in the fiscal year.