Inadequate Government Support Harms Crucial Work of Canada’s Public Employment Service

Career development practitioners (CDPs) help people find work and manage transitions in today’s ever-evolving labour market. While they are employed in all kinds of job settings – from high schools to post-secondary institutions to private companies – the majority of CDPs work in Canada’s public employment service or PES, either as civil servants or as employees of one of the more than 1,100 agencies contracted by governments to provide employment services to particular groups (e.g. Employment Insurance recipients, youth) as well as the general public.

The governance context under which these CDPs work has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Up until 1996, Canada’s PES was managed and delivered by the Government of Canada. Between 1996 and 2010, federal responsibilities for most aspects of the PES were devolved to provincial and territorial governments, who today operate the PES under names such as WorkBC, Alberta Works, Employment Ontario and Emploi-Québec. Ottawa has retained direct responsibility for employment services for Indigenous people, youth, persons with disabilities and immigrants, as well as pan-Canadian programs, funding and overall co-ordination.  ­­

My book Federalism in Action: The Devolution of Canada’s Public Employment Service 1995-2015 assessed how Canada’s public employment service performed between 1995 and 2015 under predominately provincial, territorial and Aboriginal management. The book also looked at how training for career development practitioners was provided over the past 20 years. While devolution has brought many benefits, the landscape for career development practitioners working in the PES has deteriorated. In 2015, their working conditions and approach to professional development depended very much upon where in Canada they lived and worked.

When the PES was under federal control, Ottawa worked hard to develop a team of internal civil servant experts that provided leadership, expertise and funding to support CDP excellence. This included training and support for federal staff who delivered regional client services under the PES; the development of labour-market information systems such as Canada WorkinfoNET; and hosting and funding NATCON conferences (the predecessor of Cannexus). Ottawa also provided financial support to various pan-Canadian organizations active in the field.

Post-devolution, federal strategic leadership, coordination, funding, and partnerships to support CDPs have become much more limited and circumscribed. Even support through the intergovernmental Forum of Labour Market Ministers (FLMM), designed to help provinces share information, tools and resources as well as develop pan-Canadian strategies to improve the skills of CDPs, has disappeared. Between 2007 and 2011, a Career Development Services working group was established, with costs shared equally between the provinces and the federal government. Unfortunately, the working group was abandoned when Ontario withdrew and federal funding ended. As a result, today we have a fragmented, provincially focused support system for CDPs working in the PES.

In 2015, the support provided to career development practitioners by their provincial governments varied considerably depending upon the PES delivery model that had been chosen by the province – in particular the degree to which the services were contracted out – and the strength and interest of its provincial career development association. In 2015 there were active career development associations in British Columbia, Alberta, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In the rest of the provinces (except for Quebec where vocational guidance counsellors require certification) provincial associations were still under development.

In jurisdictions where the face of the provincial PES was fully contracted out – for example, British Columbia and Ontario – the provincial government provided no support as each contractor was expected to hire qualified staff and train them as needed. There was no expectation that staff be certified. Post-devolution, the strongest support for the CDP profession (and partnerships with national career development organizations) came from Alberta, New Brunswick, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In 2015, all of these provinces had a mixed PES delivery system; civil servants provided front-door access to employment services, which were supported by non-governmental organizations. All ensured that their provincial staff was properly trained, and some even extended this to their contracted agencies.

Canada’s public employment service plays an essential role in helping unemployed individuals – especially those with barriers to employment – find work. By facilitating job matching it also helps employers fill vacancies more efficiently. At the heart of the PES are career development practitioners. High-quality training and support for CDP professionals contributes not only to high quality service for Canadians, but also to stronger organizational health.

Post-devolution, there is a patchwork of support across provinces for CDP professionals working in the public employment service, very limited best practice sharing across provinces, and a largely absent federal government. This needs to change if we want the quality of our PES to improve. Two recent pan-Canadian developments are encouraging: the implementation of the FLMM supported Labour Market Information Council and a federal promise to financially support a Future Skills Centre. Let’s hope that the work of these organizations extends to supporting excellence for Canada’s career development practitioners.

This blog posting was written for CERIC The Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling and posted on their site on July 6, 2018.  

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