OTTAWA - Federal and provincial officials said Tuesday that the future appears bright for the Canada Job Grant.
Employment Minister Jason Kenney said his provincial and territorial counterparts are "pleased" with the flexibility the Conservative government has shown in negotiations on the once-contentious national job training program.
"I'm pretty satisfied with the direction of everything," Kenney told the media outside the House of Commons.
"I am very hopeful we'll get to ... an approach that does a better job of getting a bigger bang for the buck for what we spend on job training, connecting it with real jobs, and the provinces at the same time will be able to keep their best programs."
Kenney sent a counter-proposal to the provinces on Friday, although his department is still in discussions with Quebec and is hoping for a "deal in principle" with the province by March 31.
The rest of the provinces held a conference call Tuesday on the new offer. There was every indication it was received with open arms.
The counter-proposal, obtained last week by The Canadian Press, allows provinces and territories full flexibility in how they contribute to the job grant.
That means, essentially, that the provinces and territories can commit $300 million to the job grant from whatever federal funds they choose — or from their own coffers. They had railed against being forced to use money from so-called labour-market agreements, the federal cash the provinces insist successfully provides job training to their most marginalized citizens.
Ottawa, meantime, will continue to transfer $2.1 billion a year in training-related funds to the provinces.
The counter-proposal also reiterates that the provinces are not required to match Ottawa's contribution to the program. As well, the provinces now have until July 1 to start delivering the Canada Job Grant, instead of the original April 1 deadline
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall praised Kenney for his latest offer, saying it will allow his province to participate in the job grant without draining resources from existing training programs that serve its most marginalized citizens.
"We're in a good spot; this is a good counter-proposal, and Minister Kenney should be thanked," Wall said.
"I think we're getting to the point where we've got a great program that doesn't necessarily remove resources that we need in places like Saskatchewan to provide for vulnerable-worker training."
Brad Duguid, Ontario's training minister, released a statement that sounded an equally optimistic tone while praising the provinces for their united front on the job grant.
"Together we have achieved a great deal of progress and moved the federal government in a positive direction on this important issue."
The prospects for an agreement on the job grant were bleak just a few months ago, when the provinces were united in opposition.
But provincial officials conceded that Kenney, known as a Mr. Fix-It in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet, was conciliatory and respectful in subsequent negotiations, while he also managed to persuade the Conservative government to agree to concessions.
The Conservatives have been consumed with addressing a skills shortage in the country's labour force that the Conference Board of Canada has called the biggest barrier to Canadian competitiveness.
The original Canada Job Grant proposal aimed to provide $15,000 per eligible worker, divided equally among Ottawa, the provinces and employers. In the face of the hue and cry from the provinces, Kenney then offered to cover the provincial portion of the grant, upping the federal share to $10,000.
Ottawa has been pushing employers to participate in training, as they did relatively robustly in the early 1990s. Since then, employer investment in training programs has decreased significantly.
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25