12/18/2014 04:56 EST | Updated 02/17/2015 05:59 EST

Feds ask whether commissionaire jobs should go to low-income vets

The security guards known as commissionaires, usually Canadian Forces veterans, who protect the lobbies of federal buildings are better paid than other guards in the private sector – but those good wages may not be going to the right people.

That’s one of the conclusions from an internal study that suggests the commissionaires program could be revised to ensure younger, lower-income veterans get first crack at the jobs.

The finding is part of a recent review by Ottawa of its contracts with the commissionaires, a non-profit group founded in 1925, and favoured by the federal government since 1945 to help discharged soldiers find employment as they transition to Civvy Street.

Ottawa spends more than $200 million annually for guard services from the Corps of Commissionaires, which currently employs about 8,000 veterans.

The government’s current standing offer expires by 2016, and the Treasury Board Secretariat – the agency responsible – examined whether it’s getting good value for taxpayers’ money.

The evaluation, finished in August and recently made public, estimates the Corps of Commissionaires charges about six per cent more than private-sector competitors for the same work, with most of that extra cash going to boost the wages and benefits of the guards.

The review found that most federal departments are happy with the arrangement, and that the program does not seem to be hurting the private sector.

Skewed to higher incomes

But the authors noted that most of the veterans benefiting from the program are older and better off, suggesting the work could be spread to where it’s needed most, that is, to younger, poorer vets.

“Low income was found to be more prevalent among veterans released at young ages, yet the majority of veterans who obtained employment with the Corps as security guards were former non-commissioned officers over the age of 50,” says the report.

“Privacy limitations prevented the evaluators from examining why low-income veterans were not employed in higher numbers with the Corps.”

The report recommends that the government consider transferring the program to a department other than Treasury Board “to ensure that employment support for veterans is managed within the broader context of federal support to veterans.”

The authors do not indicate which department might provide a better home, but the obvious candidates are Veterans Affairs or Employment and Social Development Canada, both of which have social-service mandates.

A spokeswoman said the Treasury Board agrees with the recommendation.

“We are in the preliminary stages of consulting with other government stakeholders on the options,” Fiona MacLeod said in an email. “We are targeting to complete the consultation by March 2015.”

A spokesman for the Corps of Commissionaires said the organization is not convinced any transfer is needed.

“The policy is obviously working well,” John Dewar, chair of the national business management committee, said from Victoria.

“Why change it? … It’s clearly delivering what it was intended to do. … We see no really compelling reason to fix it.”

Income declines on discharge

Dewar challenged the claim that the corps provides jobs to primarily higher-income vets, noting that 70 per cent of all veterans have no pensions.

Since 2006, federal policy has required the Corps of Commissionaires to give a minimum of 60 per cent of contracted work hours to veterans, which as of that year also includes ex-RCMP officers honourably discharged.

The organization needs some flexibility to hire non-vets because there can be shortages of bilingual guards in locations such as Ottawa or Montreal, and shortages for staffing federal buildings in locations where few vets live.

The corps says it hires about 1,000 veterans a year, full- and part-time, and currently employs about 20,000 people altogether, 42 per cent of them veterans.

A 2011 study showed that veterans experience a 10 per cent drop in income, on average, in the three years after their release from the military, though the drop is triple that among women and medically discharged personnel.

“A unique issue that veterans continue to face is the lack of recognition of the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] work experience by potential employers,” said the Treasury Board evaluation.

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