by Donna E. Wood
In 2018 we celebrate 100 years of public employment services in Canada. These are the supports and services provided by our governments to connect unemployed and underemployed job seekers with employers through information, guidance, placement, training, and labour market adjustment services. Not only does the public employment service or PES help individuals develop job skills, by facilitating job matching it helps employers fill vacancies more efficiently.
Jurisdictional responsibility for the public employment service in Canada has changed hands four times over the century ─ from a national network of provincially managed but federally funded services between 1918 and 1940; to an arm’s length organization between 1940 and 1977 under federal control; to direct management under a federal government department between 1977 and 1996; and back to mostly provincial design and delivery using federal funding starting in 1996. However, what has not changed is the essential contribution of Canada’s public employment service to keeping unemployment rates low and labour market participation rates high.
My new book Federalism in Action: the Devolution of Canada’s Public Employment Service 1995-2015 focuses on the past 20 years when ─ triggered primarily by a need for the Chrétien Liberal government to demonstrate ‘flexible federalism’ following the 1995 Québec referendum ─ federal PES responsibilities were transferred to the provinces and territories one jurisdiction at a time over a period of 14 years through largely similar Labour Market Development Agreements. Provincial management was solidified in 2007 with additional federal funding through what were known at the time as Labour Market Agreements.
In 2015 provinces provided public employment services through entities called WorkBC, Alberta Works, Saskatchewan-Canada Career & Employment Service Centres, Manitoba Jobs & Employment Centres, Employment Ontario, Emploi-Québec, New Brunswick Career Information Centres, Career Nova Scotia Centres, PEI Career Development Centres, and Newfoundland & Labrador Employment Skills Centres. Services for Aboriginal people were provided through 85 Aboriginal Skills and Training Strategy (ASETS) holders operating in communities across Canada and by the federal government directly through contracts arranged with community-based organizations for youth and persons with disabilities. Ottawa also retained a funding, oversight, and pan-Canadian coordination role.
Collectively these organizations and the services they provide make up Canada’s public employment service, with most funding coming from mandatory employer and worker contributions to the Employment Insurance (EI) account and oversight provided by the Canada Employment Insurance Commission and federal/provincial/territorial Ministers through the Forum of Labour Market Ministers. In 2013/14 almost 1.2 million Canadians used provincial, territorial, and Aboriginal employment services at a cost of over $3.1 billion to the Government of Canada. Many of those receiving services were in receipt of federal Employment Insurance or provincial social assistance benefits.
My book assesses how Canada’s public employment service performed between 1995 and 2015 under predominately provincial, territorial and Aboriginal ─ as opposed to federal ─ management. The data source was 132 interviews with 170 people in every province; federal parliamentary committee hearings and reports; federal performance and evaluation reports (including the annual Employment Insurance Monitoring and Assessment Report); provincial accountability reports; as well as academic and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) assessments. The analysis was framed around four questions:
1. What governance choices did each province make in taking on the federal programming? Why? What outcomes have been achieved and how do these compare across provinces?
2. Considered collectively, how do the devolved PES services compare to when they were delivered by the Government of Canada?
3. How is the Government of Canada managing its role post-devolution?
4. How does Canada’s PES work together as a whole? What challenges remain as our public employment service moves into the 21st century?
On the first question, provinces were compared on four elements drawn from the international literature (single gateways, decentralization, outsourcing, and partnerships) in four groupings: the Far West (British Columbia and Alberta); the Midwest (Saskatchewan and Manitoba); the Middle (Ontario and Québec) and the East (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador). Provinces made very different choices on these elements, based on their individual history, devolution timing, and their political culture/dynamics. To compare provinces, I used efficiency, effectiveness and democracy as criteria. Considering all of these elements and criteria, Québec’s PES choices provide a best practices model that the rest of Canada should examine more closely and potentially emulate.
On the second question, in 2015 almost triple the number of Canadians were served compared to 1995 when the Government of Canada was directly responsible. However, this change needs to be read in conjunction with a change in the programming provided: from more expensive long term interventions (including training) to less expensive ‘light touch’ employment assistance services. The change in programming was an outcome of the indicators chosen by Ottawa following the 1995/96 EI reform as well as the fact that ─ other than for two years during the 2008/09 economic downturn ─ there was no increase in federal funding. Even with this change in programming emphasis, federal evaluation studies carried out over the years have consistently demonstrated the positive impact of provincial and Aboriginal oversight of the PES.
On the third and fourth questions examined in the book, stay tuned to my next blog posting. A preview of challenges and suggestions for change were detailed in a submission I made to federal/provincial/territorial governments in 2016 as part of their consultations on the labour market transfer agreements. Take a look at the Caledon Institute of Social Policy version of my thoughts published in 2016 as Strengthening Canada’s Public Employment Service Post Devolution. I’ll bring these issues forward to 2018 in my next blog posting.
Federalism in Action: The Devolution of Canada’s Public Employment Service 1995-2015 is now available for purchase.
 PES arrangements in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut were not examined in the book.