HALIFAX, FRIDAY, APRIL 29, 2016
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Hon. Gordon Wilson
MR. CHAIRMAN: The Committee of the Whole on Supply will come to order.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. MICHEL SAMSON: Mr. Chairman, would you please call the estimates of the Department of Labour and Advanced Education.
Resolution E14 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $364,271,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Labour and Advanced Education.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I will now invite the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education to make some opening comments, if she wishes, and introduce her staff members to the committee.
The honourable Minister of Labour and Advanced Education.
HON. KELLY REGAN: Thank you for the opportunity to speak about this year's budget for Labour and Advanced Education and the important work being done by the department. I'd like to introduce a couple of people who are here with me today: With me on my right is Duff Montgomerie, our Deputy Minister; and on my left is Laurie Bennett, our Director of Financial Planning.
The department is served by dedicated, hardworking people in a range of divisions and branches and many of them are with us here today in the gallery. The divisions and branches include: Skills and Learning, Higher Education, Safety, Labour Services, Corporate Policy and Services, and of course we're supported by Finance, HR and Communications. The Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency also plays an important role in the department's work and mandate.
Following an overview of the department and our work, I'll be happy to take questions from the committee members. Our department's focus is broad, we're focused on getting more people working and working safely. We're focusing on training, studying, hiring and bringing innovative ideas to life. Ideas that will help our province's economy and people thrive and prosper.
Our government is focused primarily on people, innovation and education. Many of these fall directly in my wheelhouse as Minister of Labour and Advanced Education and certainly as Minister responsible for Youth. Over the past two years our commitment has been clear. We've taken significant steps toward positive change that balances our fiscal responsibility with the need to do things differently. This budget invests in opportunities for growth, health, education, youth and jobs training. Our targeted, focused investments show what's possible when we stick to a plan and work together to build a stronger Nova Scotia. It has not always been easy, but we've stuck to our fiscal plan and made some of the difficult decisions necessary to better position the province for growth.
As we've heard the Premier say, the private sector drives economic growth but government has a role, too. It has to clear the way and create an environment that sets the stage for businesses to invest, produce, compete and grow. It's difficult to grow an economy with a shrinking workforce. We have a responsibility to ensure we have a healthy and well-educated workforce that is prepared to take advantage of opportunities now and into the future. Targeted spending to support our workforce and our education system will start to prepare the foundation we need to seize the opportunities in front of us and face our challenges together.
On that note, let's turn to the general budget numbers for my department. We actually have two separate budgets: one for the funding provided to universities and one for the remainder of the department, including student assistance. The 2016-17 departmental budget is approximately $364 million. The most significant budget changes are those associated with investments in youth and job training. Budget funding will also make it easier for business to access skilled and knowledgeable workers.
More young people are staying and working in Nova Scotia, and this support will help continue that trend. As Minister responsible for Youth, I am working with my colleagues, the private sector, and our many partners to make that a reality. We know a big part of landing a job is being able to point to real-world experience, and that's why government is investing $5.1 million to improve access to co-op and summer jobs. The Co-op Education Incentive and Student Summer Skills Incentive offer post-secondary students valuable, on-the-job experience to help them in their studies and prepare for their future careers. These incentives will create more than 1,200 placements for post-secondary students this year.
Government is also working to hire more young Nova Scotians. This province has hired 1,239 new workers age 35 or under since 2013; more than 200 of those have been hired since November of last year. With the Experience Through Opportunity program, government stepped up to give young and less experienced workers opportunities within the Public Service across Nova Scotia.
Government is leading by example, but we can't solve youth unemployment alone. This year's budget continues the START program to help unemployed Nova Scotians find work. Through this program, government and business work together to address unemployment and help more skilled tradespeople find work in Nova Scotia.
The Graduate to Opportunity program helps recent graduates get their first job. Since the program was launched, more than 100 new grads have been hired and now are working in new permanent full-time positions with businesses right here in Nova Scotia. The program's first year was successful. It met its goal because we were able to work with businesses to grow the number of opportunities and jobs for young Nova Scotians. In 2015, programs like Graduate to Opportunity and START helped more than 1,000 Nova Scotians find work in the province. The funding for Graduate to Opportunity is doubling this year to $3.2 million and will create even more opportunities for recent graduates. These investments will make it easier for more Nova Scotians to find work right here at home.
We're also improving services so all unemployed Nova Scotians have more support when they are looking for work. Nova Scotia's improved small business confidence means more growth and more job opportunities for Nova Scotian, but we need to support today's workers so they can take advantage of these opportunities.
The government recognizes more money needs to go into helping unemployed Nova Scotians find work. That's why we're changing the $23-million employment services system by spending less on administration and more on the front lines. The new system will also include greater focus on finding opportunities for youth and more effective support for businesses. This budget continues to support Careers Nova Scotia as it transforms to better help our workers find jobs. We know that Nova Scotians want to work, and we're committed to helping them.
Part of landing a good job is getting a solid foundation with a post-secondary education. For some that means college or university; for others, it means apprenticeship. About two years ago, government established the industry-led Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency to help more apprentices get and complete the training they need for good jobs here at home. Apprenticeship is incredibly important to the growth of our industries and our economy. There are great jobs in the skilled trades, and we want to make sure our employers are providing more opportunities for apprentices to train, become certified, and enjoy great careers here at home.
The agency has also been working to establish agreements with other provinces to help apprentices finish their training faster. Working with our Atlantic and national colleagues, the agency is making it easier for apprentices to move between provinces and territories while completing their training, and this will open up more opportunities for apprentices to access on-the-job training. As a partner in the Atlantic Apprenticeship Harmonization Project, the agency is helping our apprentices get the training they need more quickly and helping our employers recruit the people they need. Today's reality is that workers are moving all over the country. Our job is to make sure they have clear pathways to get their certification so they can fully contribute to our economy.
As of January 1st, apprentices' technical training, work experience and exam results are recognized across the country. Students graduating from approved pre-apprenticeship training programs also get full credit for their training. This makes it easier for Nova Scotians who began their apprenticeship in another province to come home to Nova Scotia to continue their training and certification.
The most difficult part of the apprenticeship work is changing the culture, attitudes and perception of the skilled trades. The agency has an important role to play, along with its partners, to reach out to youth and their influencers to create opportunities for them to explore careers in the skilled trades. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that my Dad is a skilled tradesman, I have a brother who is a skilled tradesman. You can have a wonderful life, a great career as a skilled tradesperson. Obviously I didn't take that path but then I'm not really good with my hands or anything involving measurement, other than budgets.
Programs like TestDrive and Building Futures for Youth let students earn high school and co-op credits and hours towards apprenticeship certification in the automotive service and construction trades. Last summer, close to 100 students had the chance to explore careers in the skilled trades and I'm looking forward to seeing that program expand in the future. Programs like these help employers, help students take advantage of the opportunities here in Nova Scotia. These are just some of the agencies' efforts to encourage more employers to hire apprentices, help more apprentices complete training and drive the changes needed to modernize the apprenticeship system here in Nova Scotia.
We also remain focused on making post-secondary education accessible and affordable for Nova Scotia students studying here at home. Nova Scotia has one of the best student assistance programs in the country and this budget continues to support that program. Students can receive a mix of up-front support and loan forgiveness. This balance helps make post-secondary education more accessible, while providing an incentive for completion.
The province provides a little loan - the Nova Scotia University Student Bursary - to 20,000 Nova Scotia students studying here at home. This upfront bursary automatically takes $1,283 off their tuition every year. Students also receive 40 per cent of their provincial student assistance as an upfront grant and that can be as much as $2,500. Our government also pays the interest on provincial student loans for Nova Scotia grads and we offer a student loan forgiveness program. Nova Scotia students who study here at home and who graduate within a reasonable time frame can have their entire provincial student loan forgiven and that can save them up to $15,000. Students with permanent disabilities can take more time to graduate, allowing them to gain the education they work hard for on a schedule that works for them. They can still have their provincial loan completely wiped out. We're investing in education, youth and job-training because that's how we can help grow our economy.
Speaking of education, I'd like to turn now to the Assistance to Universities Budget which is just over $380 million this year. Last year government committed to providing universities with predictable, stable funding increases of 1 per cent per year for four years. Budget 2016 continues to meet that commitment. Universities will receive an operating grant increase of $3.2 million.
We've been working with universities to ensure they are here educating students and helping shape the province's future for years to come. There are challenges, absolutely - namely that university operating costs are growing at a greater rate than projected revenues. Universities are working hard to address this issue and we've been working alongside them to help set a course that will address the issues they're facing while preserving the important role they play in our province's economy.
Last year, we passed the University Accountability and Sustainability Act. To support this Act, a standardized reporting template has been developed to monitor the financial health of universities. It will help us identify trends and address them before they become issues. Outcome agreements are also a key part of the new Act. Universities will be required to report to the department on six common measures that fall under the themes of sustainable institutions and quality experience. We've met with every university to discuss individual outcome agreements, and they will be finalized in July.
A key piece of work over the last while has been developing a new memorandum of understanding between the province and universities. It's more comprehensive than the last agreement, and we've consulted widely on its development with university presidents, students, and related government departments. The new MOU is very nearly complete. We're in the home stretch, and I hope to have it finalized very soon.
Virtually everyone agrees that our universities are tremendous assets as places to learn and grow, to foster innovation, and to drive our economic growth. To help capitalize on that, we formed an innovation team in 2014. It includes representatives from government, our universities and the NSCC, students, and the private sector. There are five working committees, each focused on a different key area, areas that were identified by the university presidents and that are aligned with the One Nova Scotia report. They include entrepreneurship, experiential learning, student recruitment and retention, technology enabled learning, and R&D and commercialization. These teams are working hard to find collaborative approaches to strengthen the competitive advantage of Nova Scotia's post-secondary sector, and we're really excited about where things are headed.
I also want to mention the Graduate Scholarship Program. We launched this a couple of years ago. This program puts money directly into the hands of smart, talented graduate students who are doing the research that will help Nova Scotia innovate and grow. Over the next year, funding for the Graduate Scholarship will increase by about $1 million to $3.7 million. This is an investment in innovation and creativity, key elements of a successful Nova Scotia. This increased investment will mean hundreds of graduate students will benefit from direct funding that will help them stay in Nova Scotia to conduct research.
The scholarship will support graduate students as they do their research and will also boost our economy as that research turns into new products and more opportunity. I had the opportunity in January to go to Dalhousie and announce over 100 of those particular scholarships and meet with the students who explained their work to me - or attempted to explain, because science - and see how excited they were and how excited their professors are about the work that they're doing.
I'd like to touch on workplace safety for a moment. One of the most important responsibilities I have is the safety of the province's workers. There is significant work under way to enhance and improve workplace safety here in Nova Scotia, and I'd like to talk about that work and some of the progress that we've made. I also want to point out that working safely is very much connected to growing our economy. A safe workforce is the key to a prosperous workforce. People want to work for employers who value their safety and the safety of their loved ones.
Three years ago, my department partnered with the Workers' Compensation Board and thousands of workers, employers, and safety partners to develop the Workplace Safety Strategy. The goal is simple: to make Nova Scotia the safest place to work in the country. We've seen some good progress. I'm so impressed by the work being done across the province to keep our workers safe. With a continued focus on engagement, education, and compliance, we are seeing changes. Workplaces are becoming safer.
I recently spoke at a safety conference that was a attended by more than 600 safety partners, including workers, employers, and stakeholders. The sheer number of people who attended the conference clearly shows that safety is not only important, it's a priority. During the conference I had an opportunity to hear stories of success and stories of real culture change, and while a lot has been accomplished, there is more to do. The progress made in the fishing and construction industries has taught us a lot.
We're hoping that a similar approach will be successful in Nova Scotia's largest sector, health care. Some work in this area has already begun. It's my hope that we'll address the safety issues in the health care industry with the same collaborative approach that has worked so well in other areas.
We also have a lot more to do around mental health. This is an issue that's getting more attention these days and is becoming a priority in all kinds of workplaces, from office buildings to job sites to police headquarters and I think that's a good thing.
Mental health is as important a consideration as our physical health. PTSD has become a specific area of focus. For too long people have been uncomfortable or afraid to talk about the issues they're having. We're working with the WCB and others to determine how we can help raise awareness and reduce stigma around PTSD and other psychological injuries. There is more to be done but the conversation is happening and that is incredibly important to help promote awareness and understanding.
We're starting to notice that workplace health and safety is finally becoming understood. The topic has moved beyond regulatory requirements and toward the realization that keep ourselves and our colleagues safe at work impacts all aspects of our lives. It will take hard work and dedication on the part of all Nova Scotians to really improve workplace safety. Every person who gets up and goes to work in the morning should come home safely later that night. Nova Scotians need to know that we have their back when they walk into their place of work, whether that's morning, noon or night. When all Nova Scotians believe every workplace injury or illness can be prevented and when prevention is entrenched in every workplace, Nova Scotians will be safe at work.
I don't want to move off the topic of safety without mentioning the work of our technical safety team. These are the folks who inspect and license elevators, boiler and pressure equipment and those working with fuel-fired equipment and systems. They help ensure Nova Scotians can safety enjoy all kinds of public places like museums, daycares, theatres and restaurants. We'll continue to move forward and strive for continued progress.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for giving me this time to talk about some of the work underway at the Department of Labour and Advanced Education. It's an honour for me to be the minister of this department and the hundreds of people who are doing amazing and important work. Even on the tough days I'm grateful for this opportunity we have to serve. I think it's pretty clear from what I've outlined today that our work is very broad - from soup to nuts, as they say - but at the same time it all seems to go hand in hand. Are there challenges before us? Absolutely. There are challenges before all of us, not only as politicians but as Nova Scotians and the investments we have made demonstrate what is possible when we stick to a plan and work together to build a stronger Nova Scotia.
We have held the line on spending since 2013 by focusing on the core responsibilities of government. We have stuck to our fiscal plan and made some of the difficult decisions that were necessary to better position the province for growth. The Department of Labour and Advanced Education will continue to do its part to ensure we're focusing on the right things and getting the right outcomes.
In the year ahead, we'll continue to focus on the things that make a difference. The Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency will continue working to get more employers hiring apprentices, more youth apprentices and under-represented groups registered, and more apprentices completing their training. We'll focus on the quality and sustainability of our post-secondary education system in a way that supports access and participation for Nova Scotia students. We'll finalize the new Memorandum of Understanding with the universities that will chart the course for the next few years and we'll continue working towards the goals of workplace safety strategy with a focus on education, engagement and compliance.
We'll continue working towards the goals of workplace safety strategy with a focus on education, engagement and compliance. We'll continue to target high-risk industries and work closely with employers, workers and safety partners to continue to improve. We will continue working to better meet the needs of people who are looking for work and employers looking to hire. We'll continue to work across government and with the private sector to ensure that youth know there are great opportunities here and are aware of the many programs that can help young people get a foot in the door and land good jobs right here at home.
The department will also focus on timely access to services for those seeking advice on labour standards, workers' compensation appeals and labour relations. We value the strong working relationship we have with our stakeholders - labour, business, education and safety training partners - as we work together to build a safer, more prosperous and vibrant province for all Nova Scotians.
By working together, Nova Scotia's future will be even brighter. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you, minister. I will now start the questioning with the Official Opposition.
The honourable member for Northside-Westmount.
MR. EDDIE ORRELL: I'd like to thank the members of the Department of Labour and Advanced Education for being with us this afternoon. Mr. Montgomerie and Ms. Bennett, you have your work cut out for you this afternoon - I'm only teasing when I say that. I will say, Minister, you didn't choose to work with your hands but the tools you chose to work with, you're doing a good job with them.
I guess the first thing I want to do is I want to get into some of the specifics of the nuts and bolts of the budget part of it before I get into some questioning of different policies and procedures. On Page 16.3 in the Budget Book, I notice a reduction of $133,000 in the communications budget over last year's estimate under Administration. Can you explain how these savings were found without a reduction in staff and why did those savings take place?
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for the question. In fact, there was a reduction in our communications staff. Every year we work with them to see what the appropriate staffing level is, how many media calls we're getting - that kind of thing. So that actually does reflect a reduction in communications staff.
MR. ORRELL: Under the Program and Services FTEs, it's estimated last year as seven, forecast to be 7.1 and this year the estimate is seven again, so there's no reduction in staff mentioned in that estimate.
MS. REGAN: In fact those staff reside with Communications Nova Scotia, we just pay for them so they're not part of our FTE compliment.
MR. ORRELL: So the decrease in your communications budget wasn't due to a decrease in staff but a decrease in what is paid to Communications Nova Scotia. Okay, thank you.
Also an increase of about $100,000 in the administration under Corporate Policy and Services. Could the minister explain this increase for me?
MS. REGAN: Thank you to the honourable member for his patience on that. We took that $100,000 that was less in the communications money, that's saved from that, and moved that into our strategic initiative fund because sometimes we have projects that come up throughout the year that we need to react to quickly, so that's where that moved.
MR. ORRELL: So that money is not accounted for unless emergencies pop up or something you need to address very quickly and you can access that money. If nothing does come up through the year, what will happen to that extra money?
MS. REGAN: If we don't need that money, we don't use it. But I have to tell you that we are often tasked with dealing with issues that come up throughout the year. So absolutely if we don't spend it, that's where it would be - there's no March Madness.
MR. ORRELL: So although it's in the budget, it doesn't have a specific place to go to? Just a yes or no is fine. Okay. So it doesn't represent an increase in an FTE, it doesn't do anything other than sit and wait for possible use at a later date for whatever reason?
MS. REGAN: I think you'll notice, if you look at what we spent last year, we were very, very close, so we don't tend to - we don't spend on things like Fabreze, let's just put it that way. If things come up, and we need to deal with a situation quickly, we do have a little bit of money there, but it's not a lot, and we're not off refurnishing offices or anything like that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Northside-Westmount - and I will caution you about the use of "you" in your questions.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate you telling me that.
I guess my question to the minister would be, could I have an example of an emergency that comes up where that funding could be required?
MS. REGAN: Absolutely. Last year, for example, the Department of Health and Wellness gave us a heads-up that they were seeing a shortage develop in medical techs. When we contacted the community college, they indicated that for an investment of $200,000, they would be able to have a bigger intake and be able to supply some of those med techs. That's the kind of thing that we're talking about, where if something comes up throughout the year and we see there is a need, then we fund that kind of program.
MR. ORRELL: That's great to know because last year we had a shortage of lab techs in Cape Breton. We had to start moving techs from one hospital to the other hospital, thus limiting the value and the ability of the one hospital to serve. We asked if we could increase the numbers of lab techs in the community college, and we were told no, we couldn't do that because they didn't have the money. Now I know that we'll have the money for that; that's great.
I guess I'll move on now to something that's really bothered me over the five years that I've been here and doing estimates. Under Corporate Policy and Services, there's a fluctuation in the number of staffing from last year's estimate to this year's forecast and now this year's estimate. It looks to me like there were 41 FTEs in the estimate from last year, the forecast was 27, and this year the estimate is 34. I wonder if the minister could explain to me why that happens. If it's 41 and you used 27, could we not estimate for 27 this year? That's something I've never gotten a good answer with in the five years that I've been here, and I'm hoping the new minister could explain that to me.
MS. REGAN: I don't want to raise the honourable member's expectations, to think that I would be able to explain the mysteries of corporate FTEs but I'm sure going to try.
I did want to mention that that $200,000 at NSCC - that added 14 seats and it is a go-forward position. That is an industry in which we're seeing a lot of retirements, people who reach a certain age - say 55 or so. When organizations are seeing a lot of retirements, et cetera, we were able to assist and help alleviate some of that. Certainly that is a concern for the department on a number of different fronts about folks aging out of the workforce and making sure that we have appropriate numbers there to fill in once they go.
In terms of funded staff, we did have some moves because - and you'll see this across government - folks who were working on IT within departments actually were moved into Internal Services, so you'll see that throughout government. That would account for most of that, but what you would also see are some vacancies. Sometimes it takes a while to fill a position throughout government, so that does add some other numbers in there as well.
MR. ORRELL: Again, I assume that the work of the department got done last year and I know it got done because the good people who work there have done it. But they did it with 14 less staff last year - an estimate of 41, done with 27 and now saying we need 34 to do it this year.
So why the increase in the numbers from what was actually happening to what we're going to do this year? If the work was done last year and the budget was maintained, as the minister said earlier in her opening statements, why the increase and the decrease and the up and down? If the work was done with 27, why does it have to be 34 again this year?
MS. REGAN: Eight of those were, in fact, IT moves. So your question is, you were able to get the work done even with those IT moves moving out, taking that into account? What I can tell you is that the folks at LAE - I've been so impressed by the people who I work with day after day. They are in there weekends, they're in there nights. I can tell you that as minister, if I need an answer late at night, I get it. They work very, very hard.
The fact of the matter is, people will step up and get the work done but they can't always do that year in, year out, for long periods of time where they're working extra hours and taking on extra work.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you, minister, that has finally been explained to me. I appreciate that. I've been trying for years, but I've never gotten that people get burned out and I appreciate that answer.
Last year, if it was done with 14 fewer people, where did that extra money go? Did it stay within the department or did it go back into the general coffers?
MS. REGAN: It does stay within the department and that gives us the opportunity to fund other things. For example, we were talking about the $100,000, but the extra seats for the med tech course were $200,000 and we would use the vacancy savings for that kind of thing, so we can do the good things that come up throughout the year in government.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you, Madam Minister. That's just strictly the point that I've been trying to get across over the last number of years. It seems that every year there has been a forecast of x number of bodies and it never gets used. I've seen in most of the departments that I've had the honour or being a critic for. So that money stay within the department to do the work that's there - that's another answer that I really haven't gotten over the last number of years, so that's great.
Could the minister explain the reduction in the Technology Services budget under the Corporate Policies and Services on that same page - that is down almost $600,000?
MS. REGAN: We had a one-time budget allocation last year for the first phase of our technical safety service delivery redesign project. This was reduced in phase two, which accounts for the bulk of the estimate to estimate decrease.
MR. ORRELL: I guess I'd like to ask the minister then, what type of work was done with that kind of money? Are they able to maintain that work with what is going to be left over with the reduction of $600,000?
MS. REGAN: In the Fall of 2015, we had money approved to be spent over two years, to establish an enhanced single IT system for the Technical Safety division. That's the division that I spoke about earlier in my speech, that deals with things like boilers and elevators and things like that. So this procurement is one of several components of the technical safety service delivery redesign project so it's just a matter of what was spent in each year. It's not that the project is off or anything like that, just that more was spent in the first year than in the second year. That's all it is.
MR. ORRELL: If I understand the minister correctly, all that money was spent last year - the rest of it that was left over this year was spent to keep going on that service. The question is, what types of services does that provide under that technology services?
MS. REGAN: There's also an $85,000 that will go on for maintenance of that system - I just wanted to make sure that you understood about that. So if I remember correctly, it's a single IT system. We had a couple of systems that were dealing with technical safety and this enables our inspectors to go out and inspect, to track, to follow-up, et cetera, in one because what has happened over the last number of years is that there have been a variety of different branches that have had different IT systems. We're trying to get them to talk to each other, we're trying to get them to do the kinds of things that the Auditor General asked us to do, so that's what that's about.
MR. ORRELL: So $85,000 is carrying forward for maintenance, but there's only $64,000 in the estimate for this year. Is that a misprint?
MS. REGAN: I'm not sure where you're getting the $64,000 from, but it's ongoing maintenance costs in the future that I was talking about, the $85,000. So you're not going to see the $85,000 here. It would be embedded within the budget there.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Before we start, I'd like to ask for a little order. I think there's some problems hearing the answers.
The honourable Minister of Labour and Advanced Education.
MS. REGAN: That's from a different budget, the $64,000. That's back in Corporate Services. That's not under Technical Safety.
MR. ORRELL: It just says Technology Services under Programs and Services, under Corporate Policy.
AN HON. MEMBER: No, that's different.
MR. ORRELL: Okay, now I'm really confused. (Interruptions)
MS. REGAN: The Technology Services under Programs and Services that had the $64,000, that's what we were talking about originally. (Interruption) Sorry, Technical Safety is a different budget line. It's on the next page.
MR. ORRELL: If I may, I'll re-ask the question. Technology Services - Page 16.3, under Programs and Services - went from $651,000 to $64,000, a loss of $600,000. I guess what I want explained is the loss. How you can improve going ahead on $85,000 when there's only $64,000 in the budget, and what do those services involve?
MS. REGAN: I'm so sorry. To the honourable member, we moved into another area, not you. So Technology Services - there was a transfer to ISD, the Internal Services Division. There is $64,000 left and that is for a computer refresh, so that's all that is. I'm so sorry.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you, Madam Minister. Sorry about the confusion. We'll move on from there.
Under the same heading, two lines down, it says Professional Services. Can you explain to me what professional services are done and what they would entail and why there would be a drop in the budget for them if there's no real loss?
MS. REGAN: Thank you to the honourable member for the question. Those kinds of professional services would be things like rent, office managers we pay who are not government employees, records management - that kind of thing.
MR. ORRELL: Moving on to the next page, Page 16.4, there's a significant increase in the estimate for administration in the Safety Division. It's budgeted now at $768,000, and the forecast was for $325,000. Can you explain how the cost of administration has doubled since the last forecast, please?
MS. REGAN: That reflects staff who were already within staff, but were just moved from another division within Occupational Health and Safety. We have more inspectors, et cetera, and there's also a little more administration that goes with that.
MR. ORRELL: So it represents an increase in the number of FTEs and increased salaries, or just an increase in salary for the administration part of it?
MS. REGAN: It's just moving them from one part of the safety branch to another part of the safety branch. It's not an increase in salary or anything like that.
MR. ORRELL: Moving on, we'll get into the Technical Safety part. Can you explain the reduction in funding for the Technical Safety part of Programs and Services, outline the work that's done by the section? I think we tried to do that in the last one, but I was confused. If you could explain that to me again, Madam Minister, I'd appreciate it.
MS. REGAN: When we were talking about the IT project before - and we all grimace now, this is that one there - it was an IT project started the year before. Most of the money was spent in the first year, and less in the subsequent year.
MR. ORRELL: Through you to the minister, is the minister confident that less expenditure in this area will not lead to adverse safety effects or results throughout the province?
MS. REGAN: In fact, we believe that it would be better because we'll have better tracking of what's going on. We believe this will make things better.
I would note that under the Safety branch, the increase in Occupational Health and Safety is because three new mining-related positions were added. So when you see the budget line for Occupational Health and Safety, that's directly related to that.
MR. ORRELL: That's great, I got an extra question in. I wasn't going to ask that question.
Under Labour Services, Administration, there's another increase in that budgeted line item. It's an increase of about $116,000 over last year's budget. Could the minister explain to me, please, why there's an increase in that budget?
MS. REGAN: If you look under that same section you'll see that Conciliation and Labour Tribunal is down to zero. That's because the funding for that particular area of Labour Services moved into the first one that you mentioned there.
MR. ORRELL: And the last question under the budgeted part, I guess, is there's a very sizable increase in the estimates for the Nova Scotia Labour Board, almost $1 million - $900,000. Can you explain to me why there's such a big increase in the Labour Board?
MS. REGAN: Again, that's about the reorganization where things are moving over from Conciliation and Labour Tribunal, so it's a consolidation of those various tribunals.
MR. ORRELL: I want to continue on, but I'm going to go to Careers Nova Scotia now, if you don't mind. I understand the department has just undergone huge amalgamations of the Careers Nova Scotia resource centres throughout the province and there has been amalgamation of all services within the department.
I guess the big question I have is, what benchmarks are the department are going to use to measure the success of this transformation?
MS. REGAN: One of our big concerns - and actually, one of the reasons for engaging in Careers Nova Scotia transformation, so thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk about a project that has occupied much of the energy at Labour and Advanced Education over the last year. It is near and dear to my heart, and I know it is very important to the honourable member, too. He might be hearing about this a bit.
We have a $23-million system where we're spending half of the money on infrastructure and administration. In organizations like that, those costs should be down between 20 per cent and 30 per cent, so they're well above the industry average. Quite frankly, we know that 90 per cent of job-seekers don't know about Careers Nova Scotia. So we have this $23-million service - by the way, we get that money from the federal government annually; it was devolved to the province in 2009 - and we don't think we're doing a good job. People don't know they can go to Careers Nova Scotia to get services.
I should say, and I should be very clear, that we have some excellent service providers here in Nova Scotia who are top-notch, who have services that are second to none, but it's a real patchwork across the province. There are some areas of the province that are over-served, quite frankly. I walked into one strip mall in one town here in Nova Scotia and there were literally three Careers Nova Scotia services in one strip mall. That was three executive directors and three rents.
If you are standing outside those three, you have to figure out what your barrier to employment is, right? You shouldn't have to do that. If you are unemployed, you should be able to walk into a Careers Nova Scotia centre and be served, no matter what your barrier to employment is. So although we do have some excellent service providers here in the province, we knew we had a real patchwork in a lot of our Careers Nova Scotia centres. There would be a variety of certifications - or none. That is a concern for us.
What we'll be looking at, first of all, is to make sure that we have a common suite of services that is available to all Nova Scotians, no matter what their barrier to employment is. That should be available across the province. We have some folks who have no service at all.
We know we need to do a better job having an online presence. We know we need to do a better job with young people. Too often young people are not getting the career guidance they need in high school, and they'll be much better served if they can go online with mom and dad, for example. They don't necessarily have to - we know that guidance counsellors are so often dealing with social work, we're not sure that young people are getting the kind of career advice they need.
We do know that the number one place that young people get their career advice is from their moms, and not everybody's mom has the access that the honourable members would have, for example, to someone who has expertise and great labour market information. Most people, if you look at them and say "labour market information," they'll look back at you and say "what the heck is that?" A lot of parents don't know where the jobs are, how to get the training, and quite frankly, whether their child is suited to that. I think it's making sure that Nova Scotians have better support in their work to go and get a job, so that's some of what we're doing there.
We're also starting a centre of excellence that will help push out those best practices across the province. I must say that some of the specialized providers have been at the forefront in helping us with this reorganization, particularly those that serve persons with disabilities. They have among the best services. They know how to help people get and keep jobs.
That actually brings me to another thing, which is that employers don't know that they can go to Careers Nova Scotia centres and find employees. What we've done at the Department of Labour and Advanced Education is, we have people who are specialized in that going out and meeting with employers and with sectors to find out what their concerns are, because there are some sectors that are having trouble finding people today.
We know there are others that are looking at their workforce and they're seeing a whole lot of silver there, and they know they're going to have trouble in the future. So we're working with those employers now, and that's the kind of thing we want to see at our local Careers Nova Scotia centres, making sure they are reaching out to the communities. Oftentimes employers are looking for people and no one knows.
I hope that gives you a bit of what we're looking for.
MR. ORRELL: It does, but I guess I'm looking to see what benchmarks you are trying to measure up to. What will your indication of success with this transformation be, and how will we measure that success?
MS. REGAN: We're going to want to make sure that we have a quality web presence, that we have quality services, et cetera. I think what the honourable member is asking me is, are we going to look and say, we've seen the employment level rise or the unemployment level decrease, and that's how we'll know this is working? Am I right in assuming that's what you're looking for?
What we do know is that we don't always control employment in the province. It's often whether businesses decide to hire, et cetera, whether there are outside forces. I believe I'll know we're succeeding when people can walk into any Careers Nova Scotia and get good services that lead them to good training to make good decisions about where they want to work, and that at the end of the day are appropriate to their abilities, and that they can move into good jobs.
We won't always be able to make a direct correlation to say "We've done this Careers revamp, and therefore unemployment went down." But we believe that having a skilled, trained workforce is key to being able to help that happen.
MR. ORRELL: I guess I'm asking how are we going to measure the success of the transformation, be it numbers of people who go into a Careers Nova Scotia centre, be it - I guess I know that the specialized services for diverse groups have numbers. They know what they've brought through their doors, they know how many people they have employed, they know how many people they have educated. They have those numbers.
My fear is that people who operate a career hub, who were mainstream providers that now have the specialized services coming to them, will not have those numbers. My fear is that they don't have the numbers that they would have had for employment services, that they would have had pushing them before.
So with the transformation, how are we going to know the benchmarks we're going to set for? What numbers for specialized groups, what numbers for marginalized groups? I guess what numbers for anybody who comes through the door, in education, in ability to place in a job? I'd hate to see those numbers slip back, because if we're just going to go on numbers, it's a lot easier to put your resources into people who don't need adaptive technology, who don't need extra training because of being marginalized over the number of years and not being employed.
How are we going to make sure that those numbers stay? What numbers are we shooting for? How are we going to know that it is actually working?
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for the question. The centre of excellence will help us monitor what's going on in the Careers centres. And we do track, through our computer system, the number of clients served and that kind of thing already.
What we know is that right now, in base year 2015-16, the rate of employment attachment across Careers Nova Scotia is 37 per cent. We'll be looking for an increase to 40 per cent in the first year, bearing in mind that Careers Nova Scotia - the new, revamped form - will only come into being on July 1st.
We'll also be looking to benchmark the use of employment services by employers, because we don't have numbers on that. In the past that really hasn't happened a whole lot, and to me, we were missing the boat big time on that. So we'll be benchmarking that to say, this is where we're starting from in this first year, as well as the use of employment services by youth at Careers Nova Scotia. We'll be tracking things like web hits, et cetera, when that is up and running.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you, Madam Minister. So the benchmark is going to be about 40 per cent across the board, is what I'm hearing, which concerns me. It's easy to obtain 40 per cent on someone who doesn't need extra services, the adaptive technology, extra training. My fear is that the marginalized groups that go in there won't get that because they're trying to achieve the desired outcome and it's easier to do it with people who don't need all the extra services.
I'm hoping that will be looked at to see the percentages of the difference between the two. If there is a concern - and yes, everybody can meet the benchmark on someone who just needs to be placed in a job somewhere, but the time it's going to take to retrain somebody, marginalized or not, should be factored in there somehow to make sure that everybody receives the same outcome, even if you need more service. I guess if you can address that for me, I would appreciate it greatly.
MS. REGAN: Absolutely, and that's part of why we're doing what we're doing. I couldn't agree with the honourable member more. We want to make sure that even if you are in a rural area of Nova Scotia and you are disabled, you are going to get high-quality, appropriate services to your particular needs.
Quite frankly, Nova Scotia cannot meet its goals in terms of employment and where we need to go in the coming years - we cannot reach those if we leave groups behind. We absolutely need to make sure that every person with a disability who comes through our door gets the appropriate services so they can work.
It may not be that they can work full time - it may not be that, but as the honourable member knows, I have a child with a disability, and this is intensely personal. We want to make sure that everybody gets to live up to their potential.
MR. ORRELL: That's what I was trying to get at. It's easy to do something that doesn't take a lot of work to get an outcome to know what those outcomes are.
I guess my big question now would be, if these outcomes are not being met, what's going to happen to the model? Will there be a sunset clause in this to see if they're actually being met? Who is going to decide if the outcomes are met and who is going to monitor that each of these career centres will provide the service to everybody who needs it, so that all people move forward and nobody gets left behind?
MS. REGAN: There will be evaluation along the way but it's very important to us that we are able to bring our career practitioners together so they can learn from each other and learn those best practices and that's part of the Centre for Excellence. We want to make sure that the centres that are doing excellent work are able to pass that excellent work along, the best practices, to their colleagues. For too long, there has just been a lot of folks operating on their own but without any ability to hear the good things that are going on, the new ways of doing things. We do have groups that are funded to do longer-term interventions and we would expect that would continue.
MR. ORRELL: I guess one of the questions I do have - it's a $23 million budget throughout the province, I believe is what you said and correct me if I'm wrong. Too much is being spent on administration, which we all agree is the case, and it's going to be cut back to around 30 per cent.
To have this transformation happen, obviously buildings are bricks and mortar and are going to disappear but we've going to have to have some larger spaces for some of these groups to operate out of. Does anyone know or has anyone looked at the cost of the final move to government after the transformation is finished, and where will that money come from? Will it come out of the existing budget now or is it new money that's going to be added to make sure that transition is smooth, that they go from one service to the same, better service, probably in a bigger building and that services aren't lost while that move takes place?
MS. REGAN: We've just had the initial proposals come in. We're in negotiations, we do realize that some are going to have new locations, new presences, et cetera. We're just starting that negotiation process so everybody knows what the rough budgets are that they're working with, et cetera, but we're still in that negotiation phase.
In terms of your previous question about making sure that the people who are coming in will be getting access to the services they really need and not just ticked off because hey, you're easy to deal, that kind of thing. Because we are focusing money from administration to frontline, our intention is to be able to spend more money on frontline services, to spend more money because I think there are a lot of people who are falling through the cracks right now who are not getting the services they need.
They may not even realize they need the services, but if people know they can go to Careers Nova Scotia - they may have an undiagnosed learning disability or something like that. The fact that they will be able to have that dealt with in a respectful way and get the services they need, they may just need someone who reaches out to the employer and makes the employer understand what this particular person's challenges are and may support that person in their job over time.
We've seen some highly successful interventions in that kind of way, we know that kind of service works, and that's exactly the kind of thing we want to see.
MR. ORRELL: So this transformation is going to take place this year, by the first of July I understand it's going to happen. I didn't seen anywhere in the budget a line item that would say a specific amount of money for that changeover. I was asking, I guess, how much will be allotted to allow that to happen.
I know it's not known yet, there must have been some kind of an estimate of how much this would cost and what you might be able to spend on doing that transformation from one centre to another.
MS. REGAN: We have this $23 million system and there will be savings as a result of . . .
MR. ORRELL: Administration.
MS. REGAN: But also because there were places where we had three in one strip mall, that kind of thing. So there will be some savings there, so there will be a realignment there. Beyond that, I can't sort of estimate at this time.
MR. ORRELL: If I'm understanding what the minister is saying, that $23 million this year that was going to drop in administration and supposedly go to front line services - it may not happen if some of that money is going to be spent on physical space. I understood that the idea of the transformation was to take that money, put it into frontline care. Is the minister saying now that some of that money this year could be to transform a building into a workable space for a group that's going in, which would defeat the whole purpose of the transformation this year?
MS. REGAN: To be clear, there was always money spent on physical space. Now 75 per cent of the employees in a Careers Nova Scotia Centre will be front line workers. Definitely, we have some organizations that are letting their landlords know that they plan to move; we know that's coming up. They have known for quite some time that that's coming up, so we do anticipate they will have given notice in good time.
MR. ORRELL: Can I move on to some apprenticeship stuff? Is that okay? (Interruption) I'm okay with that.
I guess with the apprenticeships, how is the department specifically measuring success with the programming at the new Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency?
MS. REGAN: Yes, in our business plan there are performance measures for the Apprenticeship Agency. For example, we're looking at the percentage of apprentices that represent diverse populations and we want to see a steady increase in that. Right now it's below 10 per cent. We want to make sure that we see more women who are registering as apprentices, we want to make sure we see more African Nova Scotians, more Aboriginals, et cetera, so that.
Also, we want to make sure we see an increase in the number of youth apprentices who go on to register as full apprentices. We have two new programs, Test Drive and Building Futures, where young people who are still in high school can have the opportunity to begin work - a co-op placement or pre-apprenticeship - in the motive trades and in construction.
What we're seeing is that these folks are more likely to go on and register as apprentices, in some cases, than in other entries in. We're looking at that as a way to make sure that we have more of those programs that actually get young people - I mean not everybody wants to go to community college. Some people want to start work when they finish high school, for example, so those kids can go into direct entry. If they've had some experience with Test Drive or with Building Futures, they're more likely to go right into apprenticeship. We like to see that kind of thing, we'll be looking at that.
We also will be doing a review as part of this transformation of the Apprenticeship Agency, the special operating agency, moving into that. There will be a review underway. The cost will be $25,000 so I want to make sure that we're not hiring any fancy-pants consultants, as we've often heard about. That will be underway to look at how we are measuring success. We measure our success by knowing that we have more apprentices being registered, we have more apprentices completing their training because that has actually been an issue for Nova Scotia, that people register and they don't complete. That's part of why we're doing what we're doing with the Apprenticeship Agency, we want to make sure that we're removing any barriers to people completing their apprenticeship along the way.
We want to make sure, as I said, more being registered, more completing, and completing in a more timely fashion because we know that in the past Nova Scotian apprentices have taken about two years longer to complete their apprenticeship than in other parts of the country. That's not to say it's because they're not getting good training or whatever, but in some cases you have to have an employer to attach to, to be an apprenticeship. In some cases it was an issue about finding an employer. If you were with an employer and that job ended or they moved elsewhere, sometimes it was difficult. That's why we've been trying to remove any of the impediments to having our apprentices move through that process in a timely fashion.
MR. ORRELL: Since implementing the recognition agreements with the other provinces, are we as a province seeing more apprentices taking advantage of this and completing more of their training in Nova Scotia, having done their training elsewhere, or are we seeing more of our students moving from here to other provinces to complete their apprenticeship training? I wonder if you have any numbers on that and if that's actually happening.
MS. REGAN: That's exactly why we have harmonization, so we'll be able to track that. In fact now, because of the work that has been done by the Apprenticeship Agency and with other jurisdictions, we'll be able to track whether someone is moving through, et cetera.
I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the work that the Apprenticeship Agency is doing to increased employer engagement because, quite frankly, you don't have an apprenticeship system if you don't have employers involved. We know that across Canada employer engagement isn't great and it hasn't been super here. It's not a problem exclusive to Nova Scotia at all.
Our intention is to increase employer engagement in an incremental way, because in order to have apprentices you have to have some place for them to attach to, so that's a big part of that.
We also are trying to change the conversation around apprenticeship. I think there was a time where apprenticeship was viewed as a poor cousin to going to university or going to college or whatever, so we're trying to change the conversation around that. We have some good partners who are helping us with that. There are organizations that are doing their best to change that conversation. I think about the Trades Exhibition Hall out near Exhibition Park. I don't know if the honourable member has had a chance to go there yet but it is very cool, you can go out there and try out a number of different trades.
I think all too often, if you don't have someone in your family who is a tradesperson, you may have no exposure to the trades and you may have no idea that you can have a terrific career ahead in a trade. You often become a businessperson if you work for yourself, so there's a lot of work that needs to be done around just changing the conversation around trades. I think the Premier has been a huge help in that because of course he comes from that background.
We're conducting a national baseline study to see, in terms of - so that we can track what's going on, in fact, and we'll be doing an evaluation in two years to measure the success of our mobility agreements, to make sure they're doing what we've asked them to do.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, time has expired. We'll now rotate to the NDP.
The honourable member for Sackville-Cobequid.
HON. DAVID WILSON: I want to welcome the minister and her staff to estimates, a department that I think is often overlooked on how important it actually is and how important is the work they do, contributes to the success of the province here in Nova Scotia. Why I mention that first - and I would assume the minister would agree with me on this - is that the sheer magnitude of the labour costs in our province and what those costs are play a role in every single department in government and play a role in the overall budget of the year that we are discussing this year.
I'm wondering if the minister could explain what kind of work she has done to address the labour costs in the province and what role has she played and her department played, working with the other departments, on labour costs here in the province. One of the reasons I ask is of course we know really the entire provincial budget rests upon a wage pattern that hasn't been negotiated yet. We know there's legislation over the heads of many of these bargaining units but really the supposed surplus that we heard the government has with this budget rests upon what the labour costs are going to be.
I'm wondering if the minister has any comment on that and the uncertainties when negotiation is still continuing. I wonder if the minister has any kind of opening response on that.
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for the question and welcome him to estimates.
The way I often explain it for the media when they would ask me questions about are you doing this, are you doing that, or what should this party in a labour dispute do, I often explain that the rule of our department is like Switzerland - we are a neutral place and we provide mediation services. For example, if there is a labour dispute on or if there is a negotiation underway, we absolutely can provide mediation to work with either of the sides, but by and large, the department is Switzerland.
In terms of wage patterns or anything like that, of course the department is responsible for setting the minimum wage but that itself is set according to a formula that was worked out during the honourable member's - when they were in power. There were a number of sort of rapid increases and then it was linked to CPI. We have a Minimum Wage Review Committee, equally made up of workers and employers. They meet every Fall to take a look at what's going on, what the trends are. Thus far in our mandate those particular wages have been increased according to CPI.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I want to thank the minister for that. I'll get into minimum wage and stuff maybe a little later. What I'm really looking at is the fact that the unionized workers who work for government - many of the bargaining units have not negotiated their wage patterns yet. I'm wondering what role the minister and her department had, and what role will they have as we move forward towards negotiations of wage patterns for different segments within government and government employees?
MS. REGAN: As I said, we are Switzerland. For example, if a matter of this nature were to be, for example, discussed at Cabinet, I would remove myself. Our department is not on one side or the other; we are Switzerland, we provide mediation services. I do not involve myself in discussions of this nature.
MR. DAVID WILSON: So if I'm getting this right, the wage patterns and the negotiations for our health care workers - is the minister indicating that if that comes up to Cabinet, she walks away from the table? Is she not involved in spearheading and negotiating and supporting those initiatives, or is that driven out of Finance and Treasury Board or the Premier's Office? She is the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, and I would think that she would be involved in how these negotiations are settled and how the patterns are set as we move forward.
So the minister is stating that she has no involvement in setting the wage patterns. If that's the case, who is leading that initiative within government? Is it Finance and Treasury Board? Is it the Premier's Office?
MS. REGAN: To be clear, I am neutral in these discussions and I am not involved. I remove myself from Cabinet. I believe that it would be entirely inappropriate for the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education to be involved in these discussions or negotiations at all. I believe it would be the Public Service Commission, but it is certainly not my department.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I want to thank the minister for that. We know that handing over the heads of many of the bargaining units here in the province is Bill No. 148. It hasn't been triggered yet, from my knowledge, I'm just wondering if the minister could confirm that for me. I don't believe that legislation has been enacted yet. I can't remember exactly in the bill what triggers it - if a bargaining unit comes to the point where they are above the pattern set in Bill No. 148.
So just confirmation from the minister, if she can confirm that Bill No. 148 is not in effect as we speak today.
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member. I think he's going to have to ask the Minister responsible for the Public Service Commission because I would not be in the room when anything like that would be discussed or I just don't have that information.
MR. DAVID WILSON: So going back to that for just a moment, I was around the Cabinet Table - is this something that the minister decided she would remove herself from those discussion around the Cabinet Table? Is there a conflict of interest that was brought up by the Conflict of Interest Commissioner? I just want to be clear. We have a member of Cabinet indicating that she removes herself from any discussion on labour patterns. I'm wondering if that was just a choice made by the government or if there was something that triggered that for potentially a conflict of interest to happen.
MS. REGAN: I thank the honourable member for the question. I can't speak for past Cabinets - I don't know what they've done in the past. It is simply that because the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education is supposed to be neutral, then it is important not to be involved in those conversations.
MR. DAVID WILSON: So in the realm of being Switzerland and trying to work with all areas, was there any discussion within her department around the possibility of any legal advice to be given - did they give legal advice to the Public Service Commission, the Premier, or Finance and Treasury Board about potentially some legal ramifications around Bill No. 148?
We've heard from some bargaining units that potentially there could be a Charter challenge, that government is overstepping their authority by imposing such legislation. We've seen jurisdictions around Canada that had to go to court around these types of pieces of legislation.
So in the essence of the minister and her department trying to make sure that things are all working well in all departments, was there any advice provided from the legal team within the department, or did they seek any external advice on making sure that Bill No. 148 could stand a challenge potentially in the courts?
MS. REGAN: I don't believe that we offered any legal advice.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Does the minister feel the department may be called on in the future if something happens where there potentially is some challenge in the courts? Or is it the minister's understanding that her department would not get involved in that discussion that would fall outside her mandate?
I'm just wondering, has there been any discussion that potentially we may need to step in here, as Switzerland of the Government of Nova Scotia, and try to get through something that potentially could drag on for years, if it is challenged? I'm wondering if any discussions have happened or do you foresee a role potentially in your department, as minister, or is that something that will be dealt with in another department and the minister will avoid any kind of interaction if that kind of situation unfolds here in Nova Scotia?
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member but with no crystal ball at my service here, I can't answer a hypothetical question. What I would say is I think these are questions that you would want to put to the Minister responsible for the Public Service. It was not this department's legislation and we were not involved.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I understand the answer from the minister. I am concerned, though, that her department is not looking at ways to potentially mitigate any problems that other departments may create. I understand fully that it was not their department's bill, but mitigate any problems that another department may create with this.
The minister mentioned a crystal ball. When I look at the budget that was tabled, in my view, the assumptions in that budget were made with a crystal ball; just what the minister mentioned. I know it's not her department's doing but it's very difficult to go through that budget and be totally committed to some of the assumptions that are in the budget, especially around future revenues that may come in, especially around personal income tax. That was my line of questioning - how we can have this budget go forward with the assumption that wages will be at a certain level when they're not even negotiated yet and potentially have Bill No. 143 enacted if the bargaining unit challenges that pattern set out in that legislation.
I will get on to some more detailed questions, and I do apologize if I'm duplicating some of the questions. I was trying to erase the ones for which I heard some answers, but it was a bit confusing there between the member for Northside-Westmount and the minister.
Under Corporate Policy and Services, and of course it's Page 16.3, just a quick clarification on the increase seen with Administration. We're looking at potentially roughly $100,000. I was wondering if the minister could give me a bit more detail on what that increased cost this year in the budget will be for?
MS. REGAN: We did actually cover this previously and I understand that the honourable member didn't catch that. We did have a reduction in what we were paying to Communications Nova Scotia for communications work. That money is moved to the strategic initiatives fund, which is a fund we have in the department. It does give us the opportunity to act quickly in the case that there is something that comes up and we need to move quickly on it.
As an example, I would give you that last year we had a heads-up from Health and Wellness that there was an issue around the number of medical technologists in the province - we have a lot that were retiring. We were made aware that the community college could add 14 additional seats at a cost of $200,000. So that's the kind of thing that we use that money for; that was actually more than we had in that fund at the time.
What I'm saying is that sometimes we have to act quickly. We literally had those seats accepted because that program has a huge wait-list, there's a need for med techs - we heard that from the honourable member for Northside-Westmount earlier. That is the kind of thing where we may have to react quickly to help fill a need, quite frankly, that we see in another department for a health care system, for example.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Thank you for that answer. Wouldn't that be a separate line item? It's under Administration, correct? I mean to me, Administration is helping for administration duties. What the minister just spoke about - definitely I would support that fully and the government should be looking at more opportunities to do that because I know there are wait lists. But why - maybe there's a good answer why it's under Administration. I would think the minister and the department would want to maybe add a line item so you can promote the fact that listen, we have funding that could go to increasing the medical - maybe there's a good answer why it's in Administration.
MS. REGAN: I'm not sure we want to promote it because as it is, we do get a lot of requests and they are very worthy requests and we can't always - we just simply don't always have the money for that. We do have a little there for that kind of thing - a rainy day fund or whatever. It is there to do good work when we do see a gap in our labour force.
MR. DAVID WILSON: The thousands of people who are paying attention to estimates today will know that the secret is out. Now that I know, as soon as I hear there's an issue around maybe some of our health care providers and access to getting trained, I know the minister I'm going to go to first. It's not going to be the Minister of Health and Wellness.
Under Planning Research and Accountability, the estimate to forecast last year saw a drop of about $170,000. So there was $696,000 put in the budget and I believe it was about $520,000. I'm wondering if the minister could account for that reduction on that line item - Planning Research and Accountability.
MS. REGAN: This may sound a little ironic but we can't always plan where we're going to get our vacancies and they happen to hit the planning budget line. That's the vast majority of that.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I apologize for the next question - it's the next line, Technology Services. I believe you were answering the member for Northside-Westmount earlier on such a significant decrease. I know there was an answer but just to be clear, if the minister could indicate the drop of just under $600,000 to Technology Services
MS. REGAN: That was because Information Technology Services were transferred to Internal Services.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I've mentioned this in other estimates - it has been a challenge. This is my 13th Budget Estimates I'm going through - some good, some bad. It's a bit confusing because there has been such a shift between departments and moving services to one. Internal Services seemed to be the department that was dumped on last year but now a lot has moved out. I do apologize for asking those questions but it does make it a challenge in the estimates. We're only allowed a few people in lockup so we try to cover as much as we can. I think we're only allowed four, I think I'm going to request maybe six next year and then we could all be in lockup and ask these questions. That is a joke. (Laughter) Soon to be 31, Mr. Chairman, just wait and see.
Professional Services last year saw an increase of about $300,000. I wonder if the minister could give us a bit of detail on Professional Services. I kind of know what it does, but for those watching who may have this question - what's involved in that budget line item and why did we see an increase of about $324,000 last year spent on Professional Services? Where did that money go to?
MS. REGAN: Actually there was an error on less chargeables on rent, and there was a security services increase because Justice is no longer splitting that with us. That's what that's about.
MR. DAVID WILSON: A security issue or something in security? I want just a little more detail on that one.
MS. REGAN: The Department of Justice used to be co-located in the same building and we would split the cost for security services and they are no longer with us.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I'll go to Page 16.4 now. In actually two segments, Safety and Labour Services - both those areas in the Administration side of things have seen increases. In Safety, Administration increased about $200,000-some, so I'm wondering if the minister could indicate the reason for such an increase because last year's budget was underspent by about $200,000. If the budget was underspent last year, we're seeing a significant increase from what was spent to this year's budget, so it would be almost $0.5 million.
I wonder if we could get a little more detail on (1) exactly why was it underspent and then (2) why such an increase, compared to what was spent last year to the budget for this year's Administration?
MS. REGAN: It was underspent because we moved that money - remember the strategic initiative fund that I was talking about - we moved that from Safety to Policy. The other thing is we did move some positions from Occupational Health and Safety into Administration, and it's just a move - there was no increase in the salary, the jobs didn't change or whatever. They are still doing the same thing, it's just they are in a different part. It's just a reorganization, that's all.
MR. DAVID WILSON: So I will go into occupational health and safety. It's my understanding that there has been some reclassification or changes in job titles within those who work within Occupational Health and Safety, which is a positive thing. I think it's well needed, and we saw a slight increase within the budget.
I don't know to what degree I can mention this but we know that legislation was introduced today - yesterday, sorry, the Day of Mourning - around occupational health and safety. Someone who believes that this is an area that governments need to continue to be investing in, continuing to evolve, the work that those dedicated people do within that realm of occupational health and safety.
So there have been some changes, I believe, in the roles of those officers and others who are doing important work. Can the minister give us maybe a little bit of an overview on some of those changes? I know people who work in the department who are excited about what lies ahead on some of the new roles. Maybe on that, what do we see in the future around the evolution of the work that they do, especially with the legislation introduced yesterday?
MS. REGAN: Obviously one of the things we've been hearing about over the last year is a new potential mine opening in Cape Breton, so we have, in fact, put three new mining positions in that particular section. The senior engineer and I think the junior engineer have been hired. There's one position yet that we're still interviewing for, but that is part of the difference there.
We also have a new outreach section for occupational health and safety. Part of the whole changing the culture around safety is not just about having rules but it's also about changing the hearts and minds of people, so we've been doing a lot of work around that. Sometimes employees just need to know what they're doing wrong. Sometimes we need to make them understand why safety is important.
I think back to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving campaigns, for example, that were so successful. It wasn't just because we had laws against drunk driving - it was because we began to change the conversation. That's one of the things we're trying to do with our safety partners.
I would point to the success of a number of different in initiatives. The Workforce Safety Strategy with the construction sector, also the fishing safety initiative - we're seeing big results because we're changing the conversation about safety. Sometimes it's as a result of an incident that makes people sit up and take notice. I would say, for example, the Miss Ally sinking - that made a lot of fishermen think twice about how they behave on the water, so you are seeing fishermen wear their PFDs. I think the CBC had a very interesting item on the other night about a new suit that you can put on and wear while you are working all of that. This researcher who I believe is connected with Dal is doing some work with Norway around that.
There are a number of things we've done, including hiring a dedicated prosecutor for OSH violations. I think having that position has made it possible for investigators who - when they go to an accident site, it's treated like a crime scene and if they thought there was a crime, they contact the police and the police will investigate. Having the ability for the police to go to that prosecutor and say this is what we found, do we have any gaps here, the prosecutor can help them make sure they are laying the appropriate charge and, if charges are warranted, to prosecute that successfully.
MR. DAVID WILSON: So continuing on with the Safety lines in the budget, I wonder if the minister could indicate what the Technical Safety line item entails. What we see on that line item and the one below it, Occupational Health and Safety, is pretty much a change in budget - a reduction of about $316,000 to Technical Safety and an increase in the Occupational Health and Safety one by $309,000. I'm wondering if the minister could indicate what Technical Safety entails, and maybe a reason why their budget went down by about $300,000.
MS. REGAN: This is the fun part where the honourable member came in and everybody was all confused because we were talking apples and oranges at one point.
Technical Safety is the branch that goes to make sure, that looks after elevators and that kind of thing - boilers, elevators, et cetera. (Interruption) Randall has retired. I don't know at this point but I was thinking that the other day. I was in an elevator and I thought that soon we're going to see a new name up there and it won't be Randy any more. So those are the folks who do that.
What you're seeing a difference in here is we were in the process of establishing a single IT system and the money was to be spread out over two years. So it was this will improve processes and increase inspections through the implementation and additional functionality of our IT system.
MR. DAVID WILSON: So there's a decrease in budget, but more work will be done. I think I'll just leave that one for now.
I want to go to the Occupational Health and Safety line item - a slight increase. Given the legislation and hopefully the emphasis on safety as we move forward, is that increase sufficient to meet the goals the government has with trying to improve safety around work sites in Nova Scotia? On the department's side, should I write a letter to Finance and Treasury Board to try to get them more money?
To me there's not a whole lot of movement or increase in the budget around safety and I'm concerned that things will be put off into the future, especially when we heard the speeches at the Day of Mourning that safety should trump a balanced budget, for example. Safety should be the number one concern.
Is the minister confident that she can support the legislation that was introduced by the funds that are allocated? I know she's not going to throw her own government under the bus (Interruption) Maybe she will and she has an ally with her if she does. I'm concerned that the budget line items do not reflect what we see with increased responsibility and legislation that we see on the books today.
MS. REGAN: Actually I should just go back to the previous question because I realize I left out something really important because you did see a decrease - that project had more money up front and in phase two it was less money. So I did want to assure you of that.
In terms of the increase in occupational health and safety, yes I do believe this is adequate. We have three new mining positions added to Occupational Health and Safety. Again, it's about changing the culture and I think we're well underway with that with our safety partners. That isn't to say that there isn't more work to do.
In terms of throwing under a bus, that might be a workplace violation and I want to assure the honourable member that I would not want to engage in that kind of behaviour.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I remember when the Liberals were over here on this side - we heard a lot about a bus back then and I don't know if they would have taken that stance back then. But I appreciate it.
I want go to the Graduate to Opportunity program. We know how important it is to try and ensure that our young people stay in this province once they are educated or trained, to hopefully meet what is driving the economy, meet the demands in Nova Scotia - having a daughter who is ready to go off to university, trying to discuss with a teenager whether they have investigated all their employment opportunities down the road. They very much run with the heart and what they want to do and I guess we just have to cross our fingers and hope they make the right decisions as they move forward in their education.
One of the things we did, and definitely the Standing Committee on Human Resources talked about this - we had correspondence with the department and the Associate Deputy Minister. In that response there was a breakdown of the applications by region. I believe every application was approved, but it shows definitely that a heavy number of those are from Halifax. As an MLA who represents a riding in the HRM, that's great to see but definitely the other regions of the province I think need support and they need to make sure they have every opportunity as people here in Halifax have. I can actually do the breakdown: Halifax had 168 applications, Cape Breton 20, north of the province 18, the Valley 8 and the southern region 13.
What are the government, the department and the minister doing to try to get that spread out a little more, so we can help every region of this province?
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for the question. I don't disagree with him that there is a preponderance of positions in metro - that's what we found in that first year. You will recall that initially it was announced I think in February and then, as part of ERDT.
When we looked at where we were seeing the applications come through, we saw a lot coming from metro and maybe that's because there are a lot of graduates in metro but I don't think that's just it. You have to remember that it's not just government creating positions. We have to have partners and we have to have folks in the private sector who are willing to be our partners and that's why we're out there working with that.
The universities are helping us make employers aware, as is the community college, they are helping us make our private partners aware because we do want to make sure that this is spread a little more evenly around the province. It's kind of the inverse of what we see in the Student Summer Skills Incentive where so many of the positions are in rural areas; it may be simply because that program has been around a little longer and folks know about it. This is why we're so looking forward to having the honourable member share the good news about Graduate to Opportunity around the province, as this program continues to evolve and expand. We're really excited about this. We think it's a good way to have young people get a foot in the door because so often that first job is so crucial for young people.
It's also why we're doing a lot of work around co-op and experiential learning because it's less of a risk for an employer to hire on a new person if they know that new person has some kind of experience in the area. So whether it's student summer skills, whether it's co-op, whether it's an internship or a practicum, employers know the graduate has some experience in that area. When you hire someone you have to train them. Even if they come to you trained, you still have to train them. It's not just sort of walk in the door and boom, you're done.
We do know that employers want to hire young people and we're getting a very good response. We met our goal the first year, in terms of numbers and by the time we hit the end of the year I think we had another 50-something approved. Again, it does take employers a while. They may apply in March because they're going to hire somebody in September so it may be a while before they hire. It may take a while to find the right match for them so there is sometimes a bit of a lag time there, too.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I wonder if the minister could indicate what the goals are or what the numbers are for this year. Have you, as a department, set a goal? If you had one last year, I would assume there is one for this year. Can the minister provide it to the committee?
MS. REGAN: We're just sourcing that number - sorry, it's not here but we'll be happy to share it with you. The funding did double to $3.2 million and as of mid-April, we had received more than 230 applications and approved more than 170.
The average salary for those new graduate employees is about $40,000; it has to be a minimum of $30,000 but we are getting some other ones. So we had 104 the first year and our goal is to have 200 new placements. So that's on top of the 104 because the first year they get 25 per cent of their wage covered, the next year they get 12.5 per cent and then the following year - so this year we would have the second year of that first cohort, plus the 200.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Thank you for those numbers. How will you determine the success of this program? I would hope it's not just that you had 104 people in the program. I wonder if the minister could tell us how government will determine if this program is successful or not.
MS. REGAN: I think we would determine that it would be a success if we see these new hires employed with the company beyond the end of the program covered by Graduate to Opportunity. The idea is to get folks in the door, get them familiar with an employer.
Early on in our mandate the Premier, deputy ministers, presidents of universities, the president of the community college and I went to Waterloo. We were checking out the co-op program and a number of different things that were happening there - Communitech, the high tech start-up hub there. I remember meeting with an employer and we were talking about co-ops - as the honourable member probably knows, I am a graduate of the University of Waterloo's co-op English program, so we were talking about the co-op program. They said that they thought when they got involved with the co-op program they thought they were doing these young people a huge favour.
However, they realized at the end of the day, what was really happening is that the young people were doing a favour to them. They were bringing new ideas, innovation, enthusiasm to the job. They were refreshing the workforce. In fact at Waterloo - and it has changed since I was there and I don't know if it's across all programs - he was saying that in the engineering program you are not allowed to hire back a former student in the co-op program because they want to make sure that businesses and the students get lots of different experiences.
When I went there you were allowed to stay with an employer more than one co-op work term. At the end of my last co-op work term, when I graduated, I walked down the street and I had a job. So I think that whether it's Graduate to Opportunity, co-op programs, summer jobs, any of these programs that give young people the opportunity to show their merit, to prove their stuff, I think they are all a good thing.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I'm wondering if the minister and the department are looking at how they will determine - post-receiving this funding and support from the department - if it is successful? We hear a lot about payroll rebates and that they are effective for bringing the jobs but once the rebates are gone, those jobs usually tend to go where the next rebate is.
Is there a mechanism in place for the department to ensure that this program is successful over the long term, and how will the department do that?
MS. REGAN: Yes, of course, we'll be following up with the businesses and with the new graduates as well, so we can have some idea of how things are working out for them, so yes.
MR. DAVID WILSON: One of the reasons I'm going down this road is that of course I think all of us want to make sure that the retention of our young people after they are educated or trained is something that is a priority.
We know in last year's budget the Graduate Retention Rebate program was dissolved (Interruption) Two years ago, thank you. The HR Committee asked the department if they could do a comparison of the Graduate Retention Rebate and the Graduate to Opportunity program. I'll table this after I'm done my section of the estimates here. The response to the committee from the Associate Deputy Minister was this, and I quote:
We checked with our colleagues at the Department of Finance and Treasury Board in order to address the committee's request for a comparison between the former Graduate Retention Rebate and our experience in the first year of Graduate to Opportunity. The analysis from Finance staff of our Graduate Retention Rebate concluded that it's impossible to determine the reasons graduates stay or left the province from tax data, and further, that the trend was unchanged as a result of the rebate.
I'm concerned that there was a lot said about the former Graduate Retention Rebate program - it didn't work, we had to get rid of it. They had the support of the students at the time, even though the students who were students at the time wanted that money reinvested. We know the debate that went on after that; they were very upset that that did not happen. There was some investment of that $50 million, but not to the satisfaction of the students.
So here we have another program that I believe is going to be very difficult to come up with the information we need. I would have hoped that the government, knowing that they really didn't have the information - it was almost impossible for them to justify just eliminating the Graduate Retention Rebate because the data is just not there. It's very difficult, once someone leaves a program, to kind of figure out how successful it is.
I was hoping for a little bit more detail from the minister, that there's a plan in place, a strategy in place, a policy in place. Something down on paper that this is what we're going to do so that in a year's time - potentially after the next election, if the government is re-elected - they can turn to it and say, these are the outcomes, this program is successful and we need to put $50 million in it. I know we're at $3.2 million but the other program had $50 million in it.
I'm wondering if the minister can provide the committee and the House the policy that will ensure there is data collected, information collected to support the success of lack of success of this program, as people move out of it and hopefully stayed employed in the province in the future.
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for the question. I would point out that the Graduate Retention Rebate was in fact a program of the Department of Finance and Treasury Board. It's not part of my wheelhouse, so to speak.
We did hear very clearly from students that they didn't feel it worked, that it in fact retained graduates. I do know that tax data that came from the Department of Finance and Treasury Board - the department responsible for the Graduate Retention Rebate - did indicate that the vast majority of the people who were accessing the full benefit of the Graduate Retention Rebate were, in fact, people who were mid-career or completing a second degree.
In terms of this particular program, we will be following up. We want to make sure - I do believe that good data drives good decisions and I believe that's why we would follow-up and want to know what was going on.
I would point out that we have a number of different initiatives that assist students in a variety of different ways. We have the Co-op Education Incentive and we are increasing the funding to that substantially in this budget. The Student Summer Skills Incentive, which we now call SKILL - we have the student jobs, we are increasing the money for that. Also, one thing we haven't talked about at all here is our Graduate Scholarship Program - I have just briefly touched on it, I guess. I think that's another way we're giving young people - in this case in research - the opportunity to have their first job in research, in a priority area for this province and those are spread throughout the province.
I take what the honourable member said about the Graduate to Opportunity jobs. These are spread throughout the province, based on the kind of research that is done here in Nova Scotia. So some universities would do more research than others, for example. So yes, the bulk of those graduate scholarships are in fact at Dalhousie, but we have them at Saint Mary's University, at Acadia, at SMU, at the Mount, at Saint F.X., NSCAD, University of Kings College, AST. It's almost every single university in the province and for a variety of different, really exciting projects.
What we heard when we were in the process of creating this scholarship and afterwards was that the students particularly valued this program because the money was going directly to them. Often a scholarship program will have the money tied to the professor and if the professor decides to move across the country, that particular scholarship moves with them. In this case the money stays with the student and they are able to get their first jobs doing research in their subject area.
I've met with a number of students, we've announced some at Dalhousie, we announced some at St. F.X. - and I would like to take a moment for an introduction. Can I do an introduction?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes.
MS. REGAN: I would just like to point out that we have the Executive Director of Students Nova Scotia, Nick Head-Petersen has joined us in the east gallery and I'd ask the members to give him a warm welcome in the House. (Applause) I note that the Finance and Treasury Board Minister is clapping wildly because he is, in fact, an ex-grad.
Actually I was there at St. F.X. with Students Nova Scotia and the Canadian Federation of Students. We were having our regular students' round table, which we do four times a year, but at Nick's request we actually moved it out of Halifax for a change. It was a lovely change to get out to St. F.X. again and see the new buildings on campus and to meet some of the students who are actually getting this graduate scholarship, a very impressive young woman who we had a chance to talk to that day.
I do want to say that I do believe that whether it's Graduate to Opportunity, SKILL, co-op, graduate scholarships - these are programs that are making a real difference in people's lives. What we have heard from students was that they wanted to stay here in Nova Scotia and they would do it if they had a job and not just a job that they could see a career developing from. That, for us, was a key thing.
Graduates want to stay here, whether they are Nova Scotians or they are people who come to this province, they want to stay here and they want to live here - who wouldn't? I came from another part of the country 32 years ago. I thought I was here for maybe a five-year stint, and 32 years later I've put down roots. I'm here because Nova Scotia is a wonderful province and a great place to live.
When there are opportunities for young people like these opportunities, it makes it so much easier for them to actually put down roots and to stay with us. Thank you.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Those comments are interesting, especially with our guest in the gallery because he's leaving us. He's going to Ontario to work for the government, I believe. I know he's going home but we should have worked harder to keep him here, he's a bright young man but no one can take it from someone who wants to go back home and be closer to family. Far too often that's the case and that's part of our problem here in the province - trying to make sure we have opportunities for graduates and we have opportunities for people who are trained.
I know I have only two minutes left so I do have some more questions around career centres and where the province is going. Maybe quickly - I do have a couple of minutes - the more recent changes with career centres and the loss of service coming up in the Preston region with the Watershed Association Development Enterprise. To say that they're upset doesn't do it justice. They are extremely mad that this organization that has been providing labour counselling service and development for 30 years to the African Nova Scotia community of Preston and in and around Lake Loon will no longer be able to do that - the funding is moving to the YMCA
I've heard the explanation from the minister on several occasions not only in the House but in the media. It's cold comfort to that organization and to the people who depended on that organization for 30 years to say their proposal wasn't good enough, the YMCA is going to do it in Cole Harbour, that's where the residents can go now to get the service - we're not taking the service away, we're just moving it.
Over my 13 years, especially in health care, the passion that community members in North Preston and Cherrybrook and all that area put into ensuring that services are in their community is second to none. I know I don't have time for the minister to respond, but I want to ensure the minister that I will be returning to this to try to get some answers on the concerns they have in that community. It's not satisfactory to just say those services will be in another community, so they can go there. So I'll return that, I know my colleague has the next hour with the minister.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, the time has expired.
The minister would like a five-minute recess. We'll take a three-minute recess. (Laughter) No, five minutes.
[1:21 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[1:26 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order. We'll now revert to the Progressive Conservative Party for their rotation.
The honourable member for Northside-Westmount.
MR. EDDIE ORRELL: I'm going to revert back down just a little bit on apprenticeships, if the minister doesn't mind. I left off with that.
Has the department noticed a significant increase in apprentices, as well as certified tradespeople, returning to our province after the downturn in the economy in Alberta?
MS. REGAN: We've seen about a 6 per cent increase in the number of tradespeople and apprentices coming back.
MR. ORRELL: I guess the logical question is, are these people working back here in the province now? Is this going to increase the amount of Red Seal people we have in the province, so that our apprentices who are here will now have the right number of Red Seals, to deal with the apprentices we have? I know we've changed a few of the requirements from one to one to two to one but the biggest problem we had is, we didn't have enough people actually working here in the province to be able to handle the amount of apprentices we wanted to have. Are they going to be working, and will that ease the burden on some of the abilities of Red Seal tradespeople to take on apprentices?
MS. REGAN: I would point out that it's not just enough to have a Red Seal come back - they have to be employed, right? They have to be employed to provide that service to the apprentice.
There are over 6,000 apprentices who are currently active and working in the province. I would say that one of the things we're trying to do to make sure that our apprentices get the opportunity to work in this province - we have a new procurement program so that if a company wants to be involved in the building of our new schools here in Nova Scotia, they need to be involved in the apprenticeship program.
You can do carrot or you can do stick - this is a carrot attached to a stick, I guess. It is definitely a carrot. It's to encourage companies to, in fact, engage in the apprenticeship system.
The other thing we need to do, quite frankly, is say thank you to the people, the organizations, the companies that take on apprentices because without them we don't have a system and I think it's really important to say thank you to them.
We are working to increase the number of employers who hire apprentices. Only about 20 per cent of employers who could hire apprentices do. It's not that Nova Scotia is lagging behind other provinces or anything like that - it's just that not a lot of employers do that.
When you think about it, if you have a summer student in your office - right now I have a co-op student, a lovely young man who is working in my office and that does take some of your time to sort of walk them through. In this case it's more than walking them through what they have to do - it's a rigorous training program.
We know that it does take effort to have an apprentice but I think particularly where we see a tightening of the labour market where we see more people retiring - we call it the silver tsunami happening. There are a lot of employers who are sort of looking down the road and saying, oh my gosh, a good chunk of our workforce is 55. They know they need to begin to recruit younger workers and one way to do that is through the apprenticeship system.
MR. ORRELL: We had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago in the HR Committee to have the deputy minister and some people from the department in to talk about the Graduate to Opportunity program. At the time we asked a few questions - I guess the One Nova Scotia Coalition recommended that we scale that Graduate to Opportunity program up. I believe it says in there that it should be scaled up to 500 people in the next couple of years. I know that 100 people have used it so far and it's going to double again this year and I know the financing has doubled.
I guess my big question is, what happens after the end of the two years with the person who has been under this program? Is there any added extra incentive to have the employer keep that person? Or, is there any penalty for the person if they are not able to keep them, for no other reason than that they had a little bump in their funding beforehand?
MS. REGAN: Thank you to the honourable member for the question. We believe those two years give the employer and the employee time to create a relationship - a workplace relationship. That's actually why you do see the incentive decreasing in the second year, because they should be more valuable to the company at that point. You would have a 25 per cent wage subsidy the first year, 12.5 per cent the next year.
We will be tracking the graduates and the employers after the end of that two-year period so that we know whether this is in fact working. We believe that good data drives good decisions and we want to know - and we don't believe this is going to happen but we want to know - if employers are just hiring somebody, keeping them for two years, dropping them and then trying to hire someone else. We want to know that that is not the case.
I can't remember if it was when the honourable member was here or when the member for Sackville-Cobequid was here, but I talked about our trip to Waterloo. Here we go now - Duff has heard this a few hundred times. He has also told it a few hundred times, just to be clear. (Laughter)
The Premier and a number of the deputy ministers, university presidents, community college president and I went to Waterloo to check out their co-op program and a number of other things. We were looking at the Communitech hub model there for small business start-up, high tech, et cetera, and we asked them a number of questions while we were there.
As I've explained before, I went to the University of Waterloo's co-op English program and you have five work terms, and at the end of - and it has changed now, or at least it is different for engineering. It may be the same for other programs but we were talking about the engineering program while I was there. Those students are actually not allowed to go to the same employer more than once.
When I was there, you could spend every work term with an employer, if you wanted; it wasn't recommended but you could. I spent mine at two different employers and my final employer for whom I worked for three work terms, I did actually upon graduation go to work for them before I moved here to Nova Scotia, because we had created a relationship and they knew what I could do. I had written newscasts, I had reported, I walked out the door and began producing a weekly news show because they knew what I could do and that's why we believe this will work, because employers will know what that young person can do. At the end of that two-year period they'll have a very good idea of the skills they bring to us.
What we heard at Waterloo when I was talking to a co-op employer and we were asking about how they get more employers and all of this stuff, he said, the funny thing is that at the beginning of this program we thought we were doing these kids a favour and we have realized through this that they are bringing so much to us. They are bringing innovation, they are bringing the latest techniques. He said it's like a breath of fresh air coming in with these co-op students. Every student brings a different skill set - different strengths, different weaknesses - but for them, they found it extremely worthwhile to have students coming in.
What I would say is that I believe, we believe that that two-year period will certainly allow a young person to prove his or herself with an employer. If, for whatever reason, the employer does not keep them on, that person now has two years of work experience under their belt. What we often heard from young people was that they were ready to take on the world but nobody would give them a chance. Now they've had a chance and now they've got that work experience and now they've got a resume that says I can do this, this and this. That is a very different place from walking out the door of an academic institution with no experience.
That's why even if they are not involved in Graduate to Opportunity, if they've had a chance to be involved in the Student Summer Skill Initiative, if they've had a chance to be involved in the co-op program or if they're off doing graduate research, recent graduates are going to get work experience where we haven't really had that kind of opportunity before here in Nova Scotia.
I should be clear, there were some university programs that have had co-op as part of their experience for a long time. We're in the process of beefing that up, though.
MR. ORRELL: I guess my biggest reason for asking that question is this: if the economy in Nova Scotia doesn't improve dramatically, once they get the two-year program, we could be training a lot of these young and bright students to leave if there's not enough available. Now that they have experience, the other side of that is they could very easily leave for either greener pastures or whatever reason - family matters - because then they would have experience and be easy enough to go.
I guess my next question is, if this starts to happen, is there a way we're going to deal with this? A second plan maybe, to try and improve keeping them here after and over and above? Is it going to be looked at after a couple of years or four years, to evaluate the program and see if it's working the way it should be.
MS. REGAN: We're always looking at new ways to do things to improve what we're doing, to make sure that we offer our young people the best opportunities possible.
The other thing we want is we want our young people to succeed. If you look at the apprenticeship program, for example, that allows young people to move across the country. We could have been scared and said we're not going to do that because our apprentices could leave and maybe they won't end up coming back. What we have to do is give our young people the opportunity to spread their wings and fly. We hope they're going to fly around home and stay here, but at the end of the day what we need to do is give them the best start we possibly can and that's why we're doing this program.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you, minister. In your opening remarks, you mentioned that there are going to be more opportunities for co-ops and summer jobs. If a student is to maintain university in this day and age with sometimes the inability to get student loans or grants and so on and so forth, when are we going to know how many summer jobs are going to be available, where they're going to be available at, and the detail on those jobs?
MS. REGAN: We're just double-checking to make sure that those are listed online. I know that folks in my area are already applying so I'm assuming they are online but I just want to double-check that they are appearing online so there is a list, as has happened in the past.
As you may know, the Student Summer Skill Initiative was initially with ERDT and came over to us last year. (Interruption) It is online and we'll be happy to provide the link to the honourable member. I'm thinking it's Labour and Advanced Education but we'll double-check on that link for you, okay?
We've approved more than 800 work placements for students enrolled in post-secondary institutions. Last year the program provided about 730 people with jobs. You always have a little bit of slippage, some people get approved and in the end they don't go with it, so there's always a little bit of slippage between what is approved and who actually picks it up, which organizations actually pick it up.
Actually in terms of the satisfaction, we have done some follow-up satisfaction work around that - 91 per cent of students were actually satisfied or very satisfied with the experience working for their employer. It can't just be a routine job - there needs to be some skill involved, they need to be learning something. I'm thinking of my local historic house where we have young people doing historical research. They are writing things, they are doing social media. They are giving tours and they have a variety of different skills they are working on over that summer that I think actually intersects quite nicely with their studies, in terms of that. So that is online.
Then I think you also asked me about co-op. In 2015 we supported work placements for 571 students at over 300 different organizations over the three terms.
MR. ORRELL: You talk about 500 co-op jobs - were all of those co-op jobs paid or unpaid? I know with some of the co-op programs in universities, as part of your training you go in and do a co-op type of skills training and it's unpaid. Were all those jobs paid and if they weren't - say for example, with the physiotherapy program that I took, you had to do time in hospital and it was up to the institution at that time if you got paid or you didn't get paid. They got a free employee - especially in your last year - for six months to do without pay.
I'm just wondering if somehow would that allow us to help maintain some of our youngest and brightest, if we could help with the unpaid to turn it into paid?
MS. REGAN: This is, quite rightly, an issue that we do hear about from our students at the government's student round table. All of our co-op positions are in fact paid; these are the ones that we give a wage subsidy to. All those 571 students were, in fact, paid.
Typically it's a four-month work term and there are some university programs that have practicums, which I think is often what we see in the health professions - they are not always paid. We also have some service learning programs through a variety of universities - I'm thinking of one of my daughters who went off and did some work with the local mental health society, doing drama presentation with folks suffering from mental illness, that kind of thing. That wouldn't have been a paid one.
Wherever possible, we're promoting the paid co-op because particularly if they are of longer duration, it's difficult from students who don't come from means to do those. It's one thing if you have a four-week placement, it's another thing to work for free for six months. I do know that it's very common in the health professions to have the unpaid co-op ones. All the ones the government supports are in fact paid.
MR. ORRELL: I guess before I get off this area and get into some of the university issues, we heard in this House a couple of times about the people who were employed in the Public Service, that there were a number of jobs created this year. But then the other rumour we heard was that most of them were part-time and they weren't hired.
I guess I'm going to ask how many youth were employed in the Public Service either as a co-op or as an apprentice or as an intern and where would most of those jobs have been? Within what department?
MS. REGAN: That would be a Public Service question - I don't mean to be opaque on that. I know that in our department we hire co-op students - I think we had a dozen last summer. They were doing all kinds of research for us. They were full-time for their particular term, those positions.
They were doing research for us, they came in and presented to me at the end of it. They were in the MPA Program, I believe. We're also hired co-op students in Mount Saint Vincent's Public Relations Program and they are paid as well. I honestly have not heard anything about part-time government jobs at all.
MR. ORRELL: Moving on to universities and students, I'd like to get a few questions in about student safety and accessibility on our campuses.
I guess my first and biggest question is, could the minister please tell me or outline what the department's plan is to improve the safety of our students on all our campuses or universities or career colleges?
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for the question. I think all of us in this House are aware of the issues around sexual violence on campuses and in society in general. I think we all want to get to the same place, where students and staff and faculty feel safe on campus. When we send our children away, we want them to have a good experience at university, at college. We want to make sure that they have a good, safe experience. We know that's not always the case and certainly there have been a number of high profile incidents not only here in Nova Scotia but across the country and, in fact, throughout the world. The question is, what do you do to combat that?
I think all of us are trying to get to the same place; some of us are doing it in a different way. In our particular case, we have a new memorandum of understanding with the universities which we're a week or two away from signing. It has a lot of the same things in it that the bill introduced by the honourable member's Party earlier this week does in terms of having standardized sexual assault policies easily accessible to students, so they know what the policies are - not just students, but staff and faculty - and have the ability for the students to know where to go to get that.
These policies would have to be reviewed every three years through an inclusive process that would involve students. We worked with student groups, universities, community services, status of women, to in fact develop this section of the memorandum of understanding. Of course last year, we introduced Nova Scotia's first sexualized violence strategy which contains actions that we believe will have an impact on the amount of sexual violence on campus.
There are a number of new grants being announced and in fact I think the first raft of announcements included one at Acadia University where young people came together and put in a proposal to the department. They were one of the first organizations to be awarded these.
Again, we were talking earlier about workplace safety. To me, this is also about workplace safety but it's also about changing hearts and minds. We need to teach our young men not to rape and that's why having universities involved in talking about consent and what it means is crucial. That's why I believe it's so important to have these grants for student groups to actually begin to do that kind of work.
We were talking about this earlier with MADD that for many years we had laws against drunk driving - we have laws against sexual assault and yet they are still going on. So how do you change that? How do you get people from believing that it's okay to have sex with someone who hasn't consented or who is so drunk that they cannot consent? How do you change that? You change it by education. You change it by getting people's hearts and minds engaged in that.
That's what we're doing with workplace safety; that's how we're changing attitudes there. I believe we need to do the same thing on campuses. That's why we believe that this is an extremely important part of a very vigorous MOU. It's not the kind of MOU that we've seen before; it's a very comprehensive document. In this particular case, as minister, I will be advised by a group that will tell me what else needs to be done. It's a living, breathing document that will have additional aspects to it.
There were some things in some of the bills that I've seen that either concern me or may duplicate efforts, I think. If you have government announcing a help line for sexual assault victims, I think that's a good thing and a necessary thing, and that's why I'm not sure that a university needs to duplicate that effort. We know that the folks who will be on the government one will be trained - I know that the students at Dalhousie put a great deal of effort this past Fall to doing their own line. That's a lot of time and pressure on young people who are off at university, some of them may be working, et cetera. I think if this is a service that government can provide, I think we absolutely should do that.
I also had a concern around reporting. The universities get this - in fact, they already have a conference scheduled for June where they're going to deal with how you report in a small jurisdiction and not identify someone. Someone thought that I was concerned about a person's named being inadvertently released or something like that; obviously we're always concerned about that. But what I'm concerned about in a small jurisdiction is that if you are in a small campus - and many of our campuses are small here in Nova Scotia - and it's reported that an aggravated sexual assault took place on X day, then if someone is not in class, people may be identifying that person that way.
We're looking for ways to have that reporting function because I believe that reporting function is crucial, but to do it in a way that provides a level of protection for the victim so they are not re-victimized by people putting two and two together and coming up with five, or that kind of thing. I want to be clear on my concerns around that. I do believe reporting is an issue, that it is necessary, the universities are taking steps.
At the end of the day I think, as I said, I believe we all want to come to the same place, which is to make sure that our campuses are safer for students. The difference between a legislated approach and an MOU approach is that the legislative approach says to the universities, you will do this; a MOU process says, we will do this together. It's cooperative, they understand that this absolutely needs to happen and they are committed to it. I know this because they are already at work on it.
MR. ORRELL: I guess my question is, has there been any funding allotted to improve safety in the university campuses? If there is, how much? We know that sexual assault is big on campuses, partially because it's young people and alcohol is involved and they are away from home for the first time and maybe they don't have the experience necessary to understand what's happening and when and how.
Both the Canadian Federation of Students and Students Nova Scotia agree that the sexual violence strategy planned to combat sexual violence, sexual assault on campus would be a great help. I'm just wondering if there's any money allotted towards making that happen. I know CBU had a sexual help line on campus last year that is not going to be offered this year, because of the funding problems to the universities and the fear of the students there is that they're going to lose that program. They are even looking at maybe raising the money themselves as a student body to allow that to happen, which is another burden on students in ancillary fees and so on.
I just wonder if the universities have looked at that or will commit some funding to that to make sure that the students on our campuses on our universities are safe and free from harm.
MS. REGAN: There are grants available to university student unions to work on combatting sexual violence. I believe that having spoken to the minister, and I think they are still rolling those out but any of the student unions that did apply I believe are getting some money. I don't know how much, I don't know whether they're getting all the money they asked for but I do believe that any of the ones that did apply are, in fact, getting money.
I know a lot of the student unions have run their own programs in the past. It's a combination of young people whose brains are still growing - except for Nick's, his is all done - and the alcohol on campus, the first time away from home. It's a whole lot of things. If we can prepare our young people before they ever get to university about thinking about consent - that is why the grants are not just going to university and college campuses but also to younger people. There are some that are being announced to high schools.
I would want to let you know that the outcome agreements that we're working on and we expect will flow out of the MOU - and we expect those to be signed this summer - will require universities to meet the sexual violence outcome in the MOU. A percentage of the operating grant will be attached to meeting this outcome. So quite frankly, we do have an increase for universities in this budget and they need to meet their expected outcomes to get it. That would be the stick approach, most of it. We were talking earlier about carrots and sticks - this is the carrot and stick approach, it's a financial approach. If you want to get your increase, you need to meet your outcomes around sexual violence.
MR. ORRELL: A question I have is around the tuition reset by universities and the change in the funding. The universities are only going to get a 1 per cent raise in their funding this year and in the next three years when it has been shown that costs are going up at a higher rate than what will be allotted to them.
Has the minister looked at what the impact on the enrolment in Nova Scotia universities may be, because of the announcement of the free tuition for low-income families in New Brunswick? If that number is going to be lower, will the minister be able to tell me if that's the case, that universities aren't taking as much money in, will that cause an increase in the tuition to the kids in Nova Scotia - students in Nova Scotia, not all of them are young adults. Is the government prepared to see that if that happens, that funding will be brought up to where our universities can remain sustainable?
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for the question. First of all, we have to remember that our universities are board-governed, individual institutions. They will make any number of financial decisions for which we have no say, no input or anything like that. That's not a complaint; it's just stating a fact.
We have universities that may sign, for example, a contract - and this is not casting aspersions on any institution; I'm just speaking theoretically - with any one of their unions that works at the institution that's above what they can pay. We have no say over that, right? What we have said to universities is, we expect you to manage your institution.
We have been very clear. We've been upfront. We've given them four years of increases - stable funding. They know what the increases are and there are no surprises, which we think is key because that hasn't always worked that way in the past. They know what they're going to get for the four years of the MOU, and they know what the increases are. So they need to make the same kind of hard decisions, quite frankly, that we're having to make in government about what we fund or don't fund. We've given them a number of options, ways that they can deal with these challenges. To be quite frank, we are doing what we can for them.
At a time when there isn't a lot of money floating around in government, universities have received an increase. There are not a lot of departments that can say that. Not only are they getting an increase this year, they got one last year and they're getting one for each of four years. To us, that is a very significant thing particularly when you consider that in the past they have been cut. Look at the landscape across the country. If we just think about here in the Atlantic Provinces - I'm not sure about P.E.I., but I can tell you that Newfoundland and Labrador has cut their funding to the universities, and New Brunswick is flat. So at a time when other provinces are pulling back their money, we are in fact increasing.
In terms of what's happening in New Brunswick, I have spoken to some university presidents who told me they had seen big jumps in interest from New Brunswick before that announcement. You need to know that that only affects a certain percentage of the New Brunswick population, and that would be the ones below the salary of - I think it was $40,000 a year their parents would make. (Interruption) It's $60,000, okay, so two parents making $30,000 or one parent making $60,000. It only looks at parental income, so if a young person inherits $1 million from grandma, apparently they're still covered.
What it does is, it changes what is going on for students who come from families that are earning just above that $60,000 amount. They're not getting advantaged by that free tuition. In fact, they're losing some of the other grants they would have received in the past, some of the other benefits they would have received in the past.
At this point, we don't know what the outcome will be for New Brunswick. There are a lot of programs that we offer here in Nova Scotia that they do not have in New Brunswick, and we don't know if that is going to be factored into that.
The Newfoundland and Labrador changes to education - again, that was a move back from a 100-per-cent grant for their student assistance - you won't get the same kind of support if the program is available in Newfoundland and Labrador. There's a lot of shifting going about.
Ontario is changing theirs. What we have heard from some of the provinces that have moved to this free tuition regime is that it is having ramifications elsewhere that they possibly didn't expect, and we're still waiting for some information from one of the provinces, so we don't have all of the information. What I can tell you is if you're a student and you're going to university here - right off the bat, you get $1,283 off of your tuition. A lot of people don't know this because it's just a line in the receipt that you get from the university - $600-and-something each term out of a year. That happens right off the bat. Then if you qualify for student assistance, that's a 40-per-cent upfront grant.
Your entire provincial student loan can be written off if you graduate within four years. If it takes you five years, you get loan forgiveness for the first four years of your degree, and then you get zero per cent interest for the next. So if it took you five years, you still get four years of loan forgiveness. Some people think if they didn't graduate in the four years, they were done, they were out of luck. That's not the way it works. You get four years of loan forgiveness, and then you get 0 per cent interest on that extra year if you took an extra year. A lot of people don't realize that you can actually end up saving $15,000 on that part of your student loan alone.
MR. ORRELL: I guess my next question would be if the department has spoken with the department in New Brunswick to see what the cost might be, and if it would be something that the department may look at as one of the other ways to make sure that we get our brightest who really can't afford it because they come from low-income families - to enable them to go to university.
Having an education, be it trade or university, is probably the best way to bring our province back around and maintain some of our young and brightest. Even if the family does make under that and still can't afford it because they are required - I know myself, we were required to pay a certain portion of our children's tuition, after surviving 18 years at home and not having been able to put that away. So I know it's got to be even harder on low-income families.
I'm just wondering if the conversation's been had about what it might cost, if it might even be considered, or if there might be some way to consider a little bit more upfront funding. I know we get the $1,000 now, but even with that, some people are still struggling with the lack of summer jobs and youth employment. They're falling away and dropping out.
I spoke to some students - they went to school for two years, had to take a year off because they worked for a year, and went back to school. My fear is, if they get a job and get the taste of money, they won't go back to school. Then they've got two years of education and nothing to show for it - they'll still have the loan to pay and aren't in the job they could be in because their education wouldn't allow them to go higher. My question is just, has that been considered? Is that discussion being had?
MS. REGAN: To do full free tuition for every student is $400 million. I don't think that's what the honourable member is asking about, but that's what the cost would be to the system here in Nova Scotia if we were to implement that for every student. For a lot of students, it actually does end up being substantially free and don't forget - New Brunswick is talking free tuition, but there's still the issue of living expenses, right? Quite frankly, when you look at what we have - the 40-per-cent upfront grant, the $15,000 that can come back from your loan forgiveness, plus $1,283 over each of four years - you are pretty much at the same thing.
The thing is, we're trying to do exactly what the honourable member is talking about, which is incenting completion. We're trying to make sure that at the end of the day, our young people walk out the door with that piece of paper. Having the loan forgiveness at the end rather than saying, "here's free tuition," we think helps make them a little more mindful of getting that piece of paper. All of that said, we're always looking for ways to improve our student assistance program.
The honourable member would know that the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development and I had asked our deputy ministers to co-chair a transitions task force that will look at the pathways to education and work for young people leaving high school, because it's not a straight road for everybody, right? So I would not be surprised to see that task force report back to us and suggest that we take a deep dive around student assistance to make sure that we are in fact doing the right thing.
I know that other jurisdictions that have moved to this free tuition plan have eliminated benefits for mid- and upper-income families, so that has an impact too. Some people have said, just take the bursary, take all that money, repurpose it, and give it to our poorest students. That is definitely a possibility, but it also will impact those who are just over the line. If it's a $60,000 cut-off, then it would impact them. So I just want to raise that for the honourable member.
MR. ORRELL: I guess there's one thing that sticks out in my elected time here as the MLA for Northside-Westmount, and Cape Breton North before that. We had a private career college in my constituency that has since closed because of student assistance difficulties. It was a distance-learning facility - people would take these programs as distance programs, the defaults on student loans was higher, and they ended up getting into trouble with student assistance, which meant they had to start to look at closing. They have closed the doors since then, putting some 30-odd people out of work.
With that type of policy, are we being counter-productive for those people who can't afford to be away from home? You were talking about living expenses still needing to be paid - distance learning seems to be one of the ways that we can alleviate that. I'm just wondering if there's been some way to look at how student assistance is given, calculated, and repaid and I guess made the responsibility of the institution. Is there any way that we can look at altering that so that the institutions - I don't how to phrase it - aren't really responsible for the repayment of student loans and being forced to close because of that?
MS. REGAN: Just to be clear, this is not just Nova Scotia's ranking system in terms of student assistance. This is a cross-Canada ranking, and educational institutions across the country that receive Canada Student Loans and provincial student loans are all subject to this.
With that particular institution, I don't think we had issues with the fact that it was distance learning. There are lots of institutions that have distance learning - the University of Waterloo had one of the largest ones in the country, Mount Saint Vincent University pioneered distance learning here in Nova Scotia. The issue with an institution would not be because they offered distance learning. It would be whether the program of study was relevant for those students so that they could actually get jobs when they get out. At the end of the day, we're not doing young people a service if we encourage them to take out a $15,000 student loan - for a private career college, that would all be federal student loans, I believe.
Let's say it's someone who takes a program that isn't up to snuff or something like that, right? At the end of the day, if they can't pay back their student loan, that student is now doubly disadvantaged because not only are they not able to get outside the house, but now they have the student loan hanging over their head, and they can't bankrupt out of it. They can't get a car. They can't get a house. Even if they're able to move into the workforce, they are not able to do that. That's why there is this ranking system for institutions that receive student loans; it's not to be mean or anything like that. As well, it's a requirement of the federal government that we have this.
I would say that the particular institution about which you're speaking, it was the institution's decision to shut their door. We were working with them, we had been encouraging them to increase their repayment rate and to look at how they were recruiting. But at the end of the day, they decide who to enroll - distance just simply wasn't an issue.
MR. ORRELL: I could probably ask questions on that for the rest of the afternoon, but for the last few minutes I have - I won't get into that. I know that at the time, when I started to look into this - I could be wrong, and correct me if I am, I don't want to belabour it - I believe all the programs they offered were approved by the Department of Labour and Advanced Education as programs. So to say that they weren't offering programs that weren't - but I'm not going to get into that.
I guess my next question is, how much does the average student come out of university today in debt? Is there any more we can do to help alleviate the debt and try to keep these kids in our province so they don't have to go to richer, higher-paying, loftier grounds?
MS. REGAN: I'm going to go back to the member's previous comment while I'm waiting for that answer. I just wanted to make the point that we revamped the Private Career Colleges Act last year, so we have a much more rigorous process around approval of programs because in the past, some could be approved and not looked at again for substantial amounts of time. So we have a much more rigorous process, and I feel more confident that the programs that young people are paying for are more relevant as a result.
In terms of average debt, what young people are typically coming out of school now with would mostly be federal student debt. When you take out a student loan, the first part is Canada student assistance, and then if you require more, you get provincial student loans. So for the vast majority of students who are coming out with student loan debt, it is in fact Canada Student Loans. I would just point out that the federal government has recently increased the proportion of grants, so a full-time student would typically get $2,000; now it's up to $3,000. That will have a multiplier effect over a number of years.
Average university debt is $26,000, college is $14,500, and private college is $18,000. Most of that now would be federal debt because the provincial is forgiven if you take four years. Even if you take a fifth year, that's zero per cent interest. Remember, during the time you're in university, we're not charging you interest on your provincial student loan, right? We don't do that. Most students will be graduating with less provincial student loan debt than they have previous to improvements being made to the provincial student loan program.
MR. ORRELL: I guess in my last minute and a half or so, I'm going to get a little personal here when I ask this question. Some of our students who are leaving the province to go to university because they can't get the education here or get into the programs here are taking on huge amounts of personal debt. I have a daughter myself who wasn't able to get into the med school she wanted to in Canada, and she ended up going to the Caribbean. She's going to come out with probably about $350,000 or $400,000 worth of personal debt. She would like to come back to the province to work, and we know there's a shortage.
They'll forgive some loans to students who study in Canada. Even the military will hire a Canadian-trained physician and relieve all their student debt or pay for the works, but because they're out of country, that doesn't happen. So is there some way to look at some kind of an agreement with universities not just in the States but also in other areas, for those who have specialties we know we could use, that would sign some form of agreement to stay and help along with that on the back end?
MS. REGAN: Much as I would love to have the honourable member's daughter back here, that may be a Department of Health and Wellness kind of question. I know it's difficult to get into med school. I often hear about people who take two or three tries to get in - it's difficult to get in. I want to thank the honourable member for his questions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Time has expired for the Progressive Conservative Party. We will now rotate to the NDP.
The honourable member for Sackville-Cobequid.
HON. DAVID WILSON: I'll be moving through a number of different topics here over the next I think about a half-hour or so with the minister. I know there's been discussion on the floor of this Chamber, discussion in estimates for Community Services, around the issue in Regulation No. 67 as it pertains to clients who are receiving benefits under Community Services. That regulation of course deals with anybody with income assistance - those recipients are finding it difficult to go to university.
Has there been any discussion between her department and Community Services on ensuring that all Nova Scotians have access to advanced education? Does the department have a position on supporting income assistance recipients with their tuition if they choose to go to university?
MS. REGAN: Well, of course, we have one of the best student assistance programs in the world, but I understand that for many people who are on income assistance, that is simply out of reach. That is a program that is run through the Department of Community Services, so I'm afraid that would probably be the right place to address that, although I have to say that I know they're going through an income assistance transformation, so that may be an issue that they're dealing with. I would not be surprised to hear from them on that.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I want to be clear on this: Is it the minister's stance that her department should stay out of that and not have an opinion or give an advice to Community Services? I know the minister mentions that it's best answered by that department, but is the minister indicating that the department is not going to wade into that issue and not have an opinion or offer advice potentially to the Minister of Community Services about income assistance recipients receiving support for their post-secondary education?
MS. REGAN: We're just checking with staff to see if there have been conversations. It's not that we won't talk about it. In fact, I believe firmly, and I know members of the department who are particularly involved in higher education believe that education is the way to a better life. So for many of us who come from humble beginnings, education was a way out, and we would want to see that afforded to all people along the way. I'll have to get back to you on that particular question.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I do appreciate that the minister will attempt to answer that question. It's important, and I think it's one that her department could play a role in, potentially advising and giving some input on the importance of what the minister just indicated.
The minister talked about the Nova Scotia Student Assistance program, that it's among the best in the country. There's a sheet that students have that I believe comes from the minister's department. On it, the first line says, "Nova Scotia's Student Assistance program is among the best in the country." Also: "More than $65 million is invested every year to help make it easier for students to go to school in Nova Scotia and graduate with less debt. That's on top of the more than $35 million issued in Nova Scotia student loans. And Student Assistance is more accessible than ever through a suite of online tools and improvements."
I'm wondering how that money is accounted for in the budget. When we go to the budget on Page 16.6, under Programs and Services for the Higher Education section, the budget for Student Assistance is $45,993,000. I'm wondering, how is it budgeted for? What is the $65 million and the $35 million? Where does that come from? Just some clarity on that.
MS. REGAN: The $65 million would include things like the loan forgiveness, etc., and also we have the upfront bursary and things like that. You're seeing an aggregate of different programs together there. There's interest relief, there's the repayment assistance plan, etc. There are a number of things that go to reducing the amount of debt that students have.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Thank you for that. I'm wondering if the minister could provide a breakdown of that so it's very clear. It doesn't need to be immediately. I appreciate that.
I'm going to go to an area that I've talked about often and is quite important, and that's around Workers' Compensation Board coverage. In Nova Scotia over the years, one of the areas that government has been trying to improve is of course benefits - firefighters, for example. There is coverage under WCB - firefighters' compensation, and regulations around that. Over the years, there's been a number of attempts to broaden it - for example, the number of cancers that are recognized.
If a paid or volunteer firefighter who is under WCB - we'll get to that in a few minutes - finds themselves diagnosed with a number of cancers from brain cancer to bladder cancer, kidney, leukemia, Hodgkin's lymphoma, colon cancer, and a number of others - if they've been either volunteer or paid for a number of years, there is a presumption of coverage that they can receive compensation through WCB either through a payout or actually through a type of pension.
I'm just wondering if there's a review of that in the coming years to ensure that we're protecting our firefighters? I believe the last increase in the number of cancers covered was a number of years ago, previous to the minister being in government. Will the department look at reviewing this and ensuring that we're doing everything we can to protect the firefighters who work and who volunteer in Nova Scotia if they find themselves in the position of being diagnosed with cancer and then potentially receiving support from WCB?
MS. REGAN: I would expect that yes, in the coming years, there will be a review of benefits. WCB has been working diligently to rid itself of its unfunded liability. I would expect that upon that being retired, we will see reviews, and we will see a number of different groups asking for increased benefits.
I would like to point out that not all firefighters are covered under WCB in the province. It's not an extensive cost for a municipality to get an insurance policy for their firefighters if they're volunteer firefighters or full-time firefighters, but there is a cost to that. Some firefighters in fact are not covered under WCB, for example, Halifax's firefighters. For whatever reason, when amalgamation took place, they determined that they would not go with the WCB plan but have their own private plan that they prefer to deal with. I just did want to make that point.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I know the minister indicated yes there will be potentially, but I hope the minister could make sure that it's a definite yes. Planning for that may start now; it doesn't have to happen immediately. I don't think it should be driven in the political arena. It should be something that the department just accepts that this is something it needs to look at, and I look forward to that.
The question around coverage is one that often comes up. The minister mentioned that there is a cost. Municipalities across the province have the opportunity to purchase that insurance policy and access to that program. But we see now with municipalities from one end of the province to the other with amalgamation and with the sheer difficulty that many of them have because of the out-migration, because of the loss of population in a lot of rural communities - it may not seem like a lot of money, but it's just one budget item that they can't address. They can't add more to their budgets.
Is there a discussion happening within her department to see what they can do within WCB to potentially offer or support or come up with some type of program that would assist fire services? I know it may fall under Service Nova Scotia or Business - I don't know where it lies right now, but the WCB file is with the minister, and I think it needs the minister's intervention and the Department of Labour and Advanced Education's intervention to push the current government to look at what we can do to make sure all firefighters are covered under this. Is there a role for the provincial government? I believe there is.
As I said, there are many barriers for smaller municipalities, a few thousand dollars or $10,000 or $20,000 is often not something that they can add to their budget. I'm wondering if the minister has had any discussions in her department with her colleagues on how we can address that issue of non-coverage of WCB benefits in that insurance program for firefighters, especially volunteer firefighters, throughout Nova Scotia.
MS. REGAN: I do know that the previous government committed to extending presumptive cancer benefits to firefighters. That didn't happen and I couldn't speak to why that didn't happen. I know that the honourable member is very committed to the health and safety of all our workers in the province.
Forcing a municipality to pay for something or disadvantaging other WCB claimants because they are paying out benefits to workers who aren't covered - that hasn't come up, that we should expand pay-outs to workers who aren't covered. I don't think that's ever come up.
It certainly is a concern if we have workers who are not covered in the province, but ultimately, the fire marshal's office resides with a different department. There are a number of workers that are not covered under WCB. There are a number of workers in this province who are not covered. Do I worry about them? Absolutely.
MR. DAVID WILSON: With all due respect to the minister, it has come up, in relation to my bringing forward issues of WCB coverage for PTSD. When I brought that issue to the floor of the Legislature, at the time, the Minister of Health and Wellness - of course, it's been back and forth with the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, which oversees WCB - stood in his place on the floor of this Legislature and said that the government would not go down that road right now because there's much concern around coverage of WCB with volunteer firefighters.
At the time, the response I received as to why we couldn't move towards adjusting coverage for first responders who suffer PTSD was that there are issues with volunteer fire departments that don't have coverage under the WCB. The Minister of Health and Wellness at the time came to me and asked if I would sit on an all-party committee to address not only the concern of coverage for PTSD but for WCB coverage for volunteer fire departments. The minister herself - it didn't come from her, but it came from her government and the Department of Health and Wellness. I'm extremely concerned, I'm frustrated, and I'm angry that this issue that I brought up well over two years ago around WCB coverage - there hasn't been movement on it.
It wasn't until one of the news reporters questioned the Minister of Health and Wellness four or five months later, prior to going into the next sitting of the House, which was when it was indicated to me that this committee would be struck to look at issues concerning WCB, concerning PTSD, concerning volunteer firefighters in hopes that we would bring legislation back in the next session of the House - I hadn't heard anything and the reporter asked the Minister of Health and Wellness at the time, and that's when he backed away from that commitment.
There are many issues that need to be addressed. This is almost two years ago to the day that the minister decided, no, there wasn't going to be an all-Party committee, that he was going to send this to the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation. I haven't heard anything from them. I'm more than willing to be engaged with the government, to address the gaps and the shortfalls that we have with our first responders in Nova Scotia when it comes to WCB coverage, when it comes to ensuring that they can gain access to programs and services if they've been diagnosed with PTSD.
I'm frustrated on other points. There has been some movement, and I'll give some credit to WCB and to the minister and her department. There has been some movement within WCB to move away from the former practice of covering first responders who are diagnosed with PTSD - it's not as challenging. The policy was in fact if you were diagnosed with PTSD, it had to be within a year of that traumatic event. They're moving away from that - I'll admit to that, I'll commit to that. Now first responders are being covered under WCB, but the onus is still on the paramedic or the first responder to prove that case to WCB.
I know I said a lot, but I'm going to go back to the all-party committee and the Minister of Health and Wellness indicating that he would send these issues off to the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation. Has there been any discussion between the Minister of Health and Wellness and the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education and the department on the issues that I just mentioned - not just PTSD but coverage for volunteer firefighters and that? Has there been any discussion between her and the Minister of Health and Wellness and the department on where that issue is, and where potential legislation might be to improve the services that I think the province should deliver and provide first responders.
MS. REGAN: I wouldn't be speaking to the Health and Wellness Minister about firefighters because that wasn't his issue, so I just want to be clear on that, and that this was a commitment of the previous government which they did not honour. I want to be clear on that, number one.
In terms of the PTSD issue, in fact, the Minister of Health and Wellness and I recently did an online interview together on that, and then we discovered halfway through it that the interviewer's tape recorder wasn't working. The Health and Wellness Minister actually had another appointment that he had to go to, so I ended up doing the rest of the interview on my own. But in fact, we did go and do that together.
The department, together with our safety partners, last week partnered on a safety conference dealing with mental health at work. It was a great conference; we had some amazing speakers. One of our keynotes was Jean-Michel Blais, the chief of police, who spoke about his own experience with PTSD. At the conference, I was able to tell folks that this Fall, together with the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, we will be holding a conference on PTSD here in Nova Scotia. I do believe the Chief will be joining us once again to speak at that. He did a phenomenal job, I have to say. So he will be with us to speak on that again.
There is no doubt that there is heightened awareness around PTSD. Before 2014, we didn't even have numbers on how many people were being diagnosed with PTSD, how many first responders were being diagnosed with PTSD. We now track those numbers so we are better able to get an idea if people are not being approved.
Although the member, the former minister, is saying that we have changed our policy around PTSD, it was a clarification. The clarification was that it didn't have to be within one year of the trauma; it was one year of diagnosis. It has been that way for a number of years, but there didn't seem to be a lot of awareness out there about that. So we say that it is clarified because we wanted to make it crystal clear that we have clarified what the rule is. It doesn't have to be one single incident. It can be multiple incidents.
I'm deeply concerned about the amount of misinformation I have heard out there from people who keep repeating that it has to be one incident and you have to be within one year of that incident. No, sometimes PTSD takes a while before it rears its ugly head. So it's one year from date of diagnosis. Even if a first responder misses that one-year deadline, and they're covered by WCB - if they're one of the first responders or anyone who is covered by WCB - they should definitely go talk to Workers' Comp because even if they don't get coverage for PTSD, they might get it for something else. I want to be very clear here that there is help available, and I want to make sure that people understand that there's a lot of misinformation out there.
In fact, WCB recently sent out information to every single first responder covered under WCB in the province to clarify this because there has been so much misinformation out there, and it's so deeply disturbing to me that we could actually have first responders miss benefits to which they're entitled because they don't go to WCB and check it out because they've been told incorrect information. I want to be very clear on this because it is deeply disturbing to me that that information is still floating around out there. I want to be very clear: there is coverage for PTSD. It does not have to be within one year of an incident, and it doesn't have to be one incident; it could be multiple incidents. I know someone who was recently diagnosed with PTSD, and there was a series of events over many years. That person is receiving the help that that person needs from WCB. I just want to be very clear on that.
Quite frankly, I'm pleased that WCB is moving on this front, and I'm pleased that we're able to offer this conference this fall. We were extremely excited to be able to work with the Tema Conter Foundation. I don't know if all the members in the House know who Tema Conter was. She was a young woman from Nova Scotia, living in Toronto, and she was brutally murdered. I can tell you about that because I was working in a newsroom at the time, and I remember that case. The first responders who attended that scene ended up traumatized.
Vince Savoia, as a result, started the Tema Conter Memorial Trust. They're doing terrific work across the country. The Minister of Business and I attended the last dinner and conference that they had here. The honourable member was kind enough to introduce me to Vince at the time, which I very much appreciated. I'm so pleased that we're able to work together.
I'm afraid I've gone on a bit of a tear there, but I'm very passionate about this particular issue and deeply disturbed by the misinformation floating about. I don't think we have a whole lot of time yet, but I'm sure that the honourable member has more questions he would like to ask me, and I would love to answer them.
MR. DAVID WILSON: On that tear, the minister did not answer the question I asked. I was asking if there was any correspondence, any discussion between her and her department with the Department of Health and Wellness on where the government is going forward with trying to fix some of the issues that are concerning first responders across our province. I didn't hear that.
I'm deeply disturbed also. Over the last two and a half years, I've worked and talked with so many paramedics who have been denied WCB coverage - denied. Many of them are suffering and have suffered over the last two and a half years. At every turn I try to bring it up, I get a different story, or there's a different policy in front of me. What's needed to fix it all is presumptive coverage like other jurisdictions have done. If the minister wants to be clear on this issue and the commitment from this government, then presumptive coverage is necessary in this province around PTSD and WCB coverage for first responders.
I've spoken personally to people over the last two and a half years who don't know where to turn, who at first went through the hoops of trying to get their health insurance to cover them because they had to take time off work, and they were denied. They were told, no, it's not a health issue, it's a work issue. They had to jump through all the hoops to try to get coverage because the insurance company they had said it's a workplace injury. They've jumped through the hoops for WCB and been denied coverage. It's only been after pressure to WCB to say revisit this, look at this, and try to come up with something that will allow these paramedics and first responders to get coverage.
I indicated that yes, there have been some changes, but not the changes that are needed. I know the minister mentioned the firefighters' compensation regulations about the cancers. It's news to me that it wasn't finished, wasn't implemented, and that's wrong. But two wrongs don't make a right. If that's the case, will the minister commit to doing that? She has my support on that. She would have the support of firefighters on that. Let's do the right thing. First, let's get that coverage for firefighters and the additional cancer coverage approved. I think that would go a long way.
And let's see the government bring forward presumptive coverage for fundraisers. We have Manitoba, which just introduced that on January 1st. Ontario now has done that; that's coming up. There have been so many first responders who need the government to ensure that they recognize that there needs to be presumptive coverage here in Nova Scotia.
In 2014, 27 first responders died by suicide in Canada. In 2015, 39 first responders and 12 military members have died from suicide. In 2016, 16 first responders and five military members have died from suicide. These stats are just starting to be calculated.
I hope the government recognizes that I'm not going away, and the first responders aren't going away. If the minister is deeply disturbed about this - and I can tell she is, as she talked about Tema Conter and that trust - then the government should have presumptive coverage for WCB for first responders in Nova Scotia. I would hope that we would start addressing some of these other issues that first responders have around WCB coverage.
I don't want to create an unfair playing field for municipalities. What I'm asking for is, let's have some leadership here. Let's create a committee then, follow through on what the Minister of Health and Wellness said on how to address these things as they move forward. At every turn, I have to do FOIPOPs or I have to try to go around the back door to try to get information. If we had presumptive coverage, especially around PTSD, that would be very clear to first responders in our province, and I hope that the minister understands that and commits to that. I'll continue to push for that. I think it's the right thing to do. I hope the minister comes forward with a plan to address these issues.
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for his remarks. Are we out at 3:01 p.m.? Is that correct?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes.
MS. REGAN: What I will say to the honourable member is, I asked him months ago to come to me if he knew of any first responders who are covered under WCB who are not getting coverage, who are being denied. He has not once come back to me. I want to be very clear on that, number one.
Number two, presumptive coverage is not - actually, Mr. Chairman, I think I'll stop there now.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E14 stand?
The resolution stands.
Resolution E15 - Resolved that a sum not exceeding $380,605,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of assistance to universities, Department of Labour and Advanced Education, pursuant to the estimate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E15 carry?
The resolution is carried.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. MICHEL SAMSON: I move that the committee do now rise and report progress to the House.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[The committee adjourned at 3:01 p.m.]