By Kristy Koehler, November 29 2019—
Minister of Labour and Immigration Jason Copping says the most important issue facing students today is jobs.
“I used to teach at the Haskayne School of Business as a sessional for many years — and the most important thing to students was always jobs,” he said.
Copping, in addition to being Minister of Labour and Immigration, represents the constituency of Calgary-Varsity where the University of Calgary is located. He said he heard the same concern over and over while door-knocking during his election campaign — it always came back to jobs.
He says students were preparing to graduate and telling him that, while they wanted to stay in the province, there were no jobs available and they’d end up headed to Toronto or Vancouver.
“We need to get those jobs here so they stay here,” he said. “Granted it takes time, you’re not going to turn the ship in a few months, but we’ve got a plan in place that will turn the ship, drive job opportunities and that’s the biggest change we can make.”
The United Conservative Party government’s recently-tabled budget included cuts to post-secondary education. While he says he understands that change is difficult, it is necessary.
“If we do something now, we only need roughly a three per cent cut over four years in the overall,” he said. “If we wait — and our debt is at $60 billion now — if we wait and don’t do anything and our debt is far north of $100 billion, then our interest payments on the debt are going to be $4 to $5 billion. Just by frame of reference, $5 billion is the total amount we spent on advanced education and that would be just going to interest payments on the debt.”
Along with the cuts came the removal of the Summer Temporary Employment Program (STEP), a move that the University of Calgary Students’ Union said came as a complete surprise to them.
STEP provided a wage subsidy of $7 per hour to employers who hired students through the program. It has been cut and then reinstated previously, with the federal government bringing in their own Canada Summer Jobs program in the interim.
“I think it was more politics than efficient use of resources,” said Copping of STEP’s reinstatement. “If we don’t focus our resources on the stuff that makes a difference, then we’re just going to continue into a debt spiral.”
There have been criticisms of the STEP program in the past, notably that it did not allow international students to apply for, or be hired by STEP-generated jobs. The federal program also provided a larger subsidy, leaving STEP as a second-choice for some employers.
Still, Copping says he recognizes that there were organizations that would not have been able to employ workers without the program but cites the existence of the Canada Summer Jobs program as well as other provincial programs that provide job training.
“I looked at all of our programs and the goal of our programming is to connect people with full-time jobs, give them the skills for full-time jobs and, quite frankly when we looked at STEP, it didn’t do that,” said Copping.
STEP also did not necessarily provide jobs that were in people’s fields, he said, nor did it “ensure there was an actual need for the funding to create a job.”
“There were some who applied because it was a subsidy,” he said. “It was free taxpayer money.”
Copping cited other programs as better alternatives. The Training for Work program, among others, provides occupationally-focused training and, while it isn’t geared toward students, can certainly be accessed by them.
Many of these programs, says Copping, “don’t get paid unless they have a 70 per cent placement rate, and some have placement rates as high as 90 per cent.”
“Our government has a focus on creating the environment that’s going to drive investment back into the province and create jobs. That will get the biggest amount of difference made — not necessarily these niche programs,” he said.
“I appreciate change is hard but if we don’t get a handle on this now, it’ll be far worse. We are setting the foundation for the long term sustainability of all of our systems, including our advanced education system.”
Copping says his government is committed to mental health services for post-secondary students. In fact, $22 million in funding was just announced to provide mental health supports for the province’s institutions. He says that in listening to Students’ Unions across the province, it became clear that this was critically important, as was the ability to access these supports by phone and internet.
He says that, while tuition may be rising, his colleague, Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides, is looking at a funding formula that will incent institutions to provide better service, manage their costs and offer a better overall student experience.
“I get it. No one wants to pay more tuition, but to make a sustainable system we need to ensure we are not incurring all kinds of debt. Who does that debt go to? It goes to the students who are going to have to be paying it down the road. Students are smart — they get that.”
Copping says his term as Minister of Labour and Immigration will be a success if he does two things — getting the economy moving to create jobs and providing representation to his constituency, one that includes the University of Calgary, the Foothills Campus, the Children’s Hospital as well as “lots of constituents who work in the public sector and care deeply about what they do.”
“They can see that we’ve managed this in a reasonable way,” said Copping. “You need to blend both the financial capital — investment in the province to create jobs — and the human capital — people that are ready to work — and make them line up at the same time. I am very confident that our plan will do that but it is going to take time.”
Is it possible to “right the ship” in his term? Copping believes it is.
“We’re back on track and that’s what we committed to do,” he said, before throwing in a “Go Dinos!” for good measure.