HALIFAX, WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 11, 2017
SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Hon. Lena Diab
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Good evening everyone. Welcome back to estimates. We have with us Minister Kousoulis, Minister of Labour and Advanced Education.
Resolution E14 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $376,151,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Labour and Advanced Education.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Minister Kousoulis, you can start when you’re ready.
HON. LABI KOUSOULIS: Madam Chairman, I would like to acknowledge my colleagues who are here today. It’s my pleasure to address the Subcommittee of the Whole on Supply. It’s my pleasure to speak about Labour and Advanced Education’s budget and programs and the important work being done by the department.
I would like to introduce a couple of people who are here with me today: Duff Montgomerie, our deputy minister; and Laurie Bennett, our director of financial planning. Several members of the LAE senior leadership team are also in attendance. They represent the many branches of the department.
The Skills and Learning Branch helps ensure Nova Scotians are trained for the job opportunities available in our province while helping employers address their workforce needs. The Higher Education Branch works with students, universities, community colleges, and private career colleges to help students access quality post-secondary education and expand the province’s innovation and research capacity. The Safety Branch works with employers and workers to make sure that our workplaces and public facilities are safe. The Workers’ Compensation Board is a non-adjudicative board that administers the legal framework for worker prevention, return-to-work assessment, and compensation programs also supported by this branch. The Labour Services Branch ensures minimum employment standards are being met, works with all parties involved in labour issues, and provides representation to injured workers in Nova Scotia. The Apprenticeship Agency is responsible for re-positioning the apprenticeship and trade certification system as a viable post-secondary option for our youth, a system that is industry-led and responsive to labour market needs, and helps more apprentices get access to apprenticeship opportunities and quality training. And of course, the Corporate Policy and Services Branch helps run the department behind the scenes. Through this division, we will also continue to coordinate all the government’s youth programming and supports that connect more young people with jobs.
Madam Chairman, I want to sincerely thank all the dedicated civil servants at the Department of Labour and Advanced Education for their hard work in providing these important programs and services to Nova Scotia.
Our department’s focus is broad. We are focused on getting more people working and working in safer and fair workplaces, on training, studying, hiring, and on bringing innovative ideas to life - ideas that will help our province’s economy and people thrive and prosper. The mandate of LAE includes regulatory responsibility for occupational health and safety, technical safety, Workers’ Advisers Program, labour relations, and labour standards; improving access to labour market information, employment services, and learning programs that help Nova Scotians connect with good jobs; providing opportunities for individuals to advance to employment through adult learning, literacy and essential skills, employment and skills development programs; and providing funding, services, and supports to post-secondary institutions and post-secondary students to ensure that high-quality post-secondary education and training remains accessible and affordable for all.
We are supporting the mandate of the Minister responsible for Youth and the Youth Ministerial Assistant by leading horizontal government collaboration on youth employment. In addition to LAE’s mandate we also have the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency. This agency is responsible for managing trades, training, and certification systems for the province.
I would like to turn my attention to the general budget numbers for my department. We have two separate budgets, one for the funding provided to universities and one for the remainder of the department. Madam Chairman, LAE’s Budget Estimate for fiscal 2017-18 is $376.151 million. The department has 519 full-time equivalent positions of which 253 are paid for by the federal government and the Workers’ Compensation Board. This Budget Estimate for LAE is up approximately $12 million from the 2016-17 budget and the assistance to universities is up approximately $52 million. These increases reflect our commitment to creating opportunities for youth, jobs training, apprenticeship, and research and development.
Madam Chairman, we are making target investments to involve more under- represented people in the workforce. New programs and funding are focused on innovation, research, and capitalizing on our advantages. The most significant budget changes are those associated with investments in youth and job training.
The department plays a key role in providing programs and services to help support the youth of our province. We are working to reverse out-migration numbers by attracting and retaining more youth from other provinces than those leaving the province. We have seen great success in this area with our second year in a row of more 15- to 34-year-olds coming to Nova Scotia than who are leaving. This is the first time we have seen this two-year trend in 30-plus years. We are working to retain more youth in the province and achieve youth employment levels so that the unemployment rate for youth is at or below the national rate. A prosperous economic future depends on us supporting the next generation of workers.
Madam Chairman, we need all young people to know there are opportunities here in Nova Scotia. When I was Minister of the Public Service Commission we worked hard to increase opportunities and remove barriers for younger, less experienced workers to enter the Public Service. Now, as Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, providing support and services to our youth continues to be a top priority for myself.
The Graduate to Opportunity program continues to help young people connect to the workplace. It provides salary contributions to employers to offset the cost of hiring a recent post-secondary graduate. Since the program was launched Nova Scotia businesses have created full-time opportunities for more than 350 new graduates here in the province. We recently added a diversity bonus for employers to encourage more businesses to hire people with disabilities and other diverse graduates.
We’ll build on the success of the Graduate to Opportunity program over the next year by increasing its budget so we can help even more Nova Scotians. Over the next four years the expansion could create as many as 1,200 new jobs.
Madam Chairman, we are also investing in our young people and innovation by creating the Innovate to Opportunity program. This program will help small businesses commit to innovation by helping them to hire recent graduates with Master Degrees and Ph.D.s, young people who can create transformative opportunities. We will expand the Connector Program to create more networking and job-sourcing opportunities for youth and newcomers throughout the province.
We all know the old conundrum: you need experience to get a job, but you need a job to gain experience. In Nova Scotia, we’re working to make it easier for young Nova Scotians, recent graduates, apprentices, and those who have been out of the workforce to get that experience.
Apprenticeship START is designed to encourage employers to hire apprentices and to support them as they progress through their apprenticeship program. To date, the program has connected more than 350 young Nova Scotians from rural communities and from under-represented communities. The expansion of the Apprenticeship START program will support 700 positions across the province. We’re helping employers find the skilled workers they need to grow their business, supporting Nova Scotia’s economy and their local communities.
Apprenticeship is incredibly important to the growth of our industries and our economy. That is why we have invested $1.3 million in apprenticeship training. We have done this by removing the cost of tuition for all apprentices. We’re making it easier for them to earn their certifications and increase their earning potential. We have expanded the student summer apprenticeship program, adding more school boards and new trades programming. Collectively, the Building Futures for Youth, TestDrive, and Serve it Up! programs have provided more than 780 high school students with the opportunity to explore careers in the construction, automotive, and culinary trades while also earning high school and co-op credits and hours towards apprenticeship certification.
Through the Apprenticeship Agency, we have also worked with our Atlantic and national colleagues to harmonize key trades including curriculum and required hours. We have entered into mobility agreements, making it easier for apprentices to get the required training they need. The agency works to improve access to and participation in the trades by Aboriginal peoples, African Nova Scotians, differently abled people, women, immigrants, and members of other under-represented groups. In partnership with Women Unlimited, the East Preston Empowerment Academy, the Native Council of Nova Scotia, the Immigrant Services Association, and others, the agency has launched new training programs and is increasing the participation of many under-represented populations in skilled trades.
Madam Chairman, we are building a stronger Nova Scotia by investing in programs that connect people with good jobs here in the province and helping make post-secondary studies more accessible.
I would now like to talk a little bit about universities. Virtually everyone agrees our universities are tremendous assets to this province. They supply the workforce with highly qualified graduates and provide research and development opportunities that allow local businesses to grow and increase their competitiveness.
For too long, we have treated them as liabilities on the budget line instead of recognizing them as the economic drivers that they are. These institutions are important to our communities, our students, and our province, so it’s important we ensure that they are sustainable for the long term.
This budget protects the sustainability of our universities and helps make post-secondary education more accessible and affordable for Nova Scotia’s students studying here at home. The combined operating grant for universities will rise to $315,891,500 for 2017-18, and that is $27.5 million more than last year. Included in this year’s operating grant is a 1 per cent increase for Nova Scotia universities and additional increases in operational grant funding for both Acadia University and Cape Breton University. It also includes the transfer of the Agricultural College operating grant from the Department of Agriculture to assistance to universities. This means all the operating grants will now be located in one place.
Our universities are significant contributors to the business community and to the innovation and entrepreneurs that are so critical to moving the province forward. Programs like Mitacs and sandboxes link local business with students and academia through unique research and training internships. This year, we will be investing $644,000 to create 161 additional research internships through the Mitacs Accelerate programs. We will also continue our support for the province’s sandboxes, allowing more students, innovators, and industry to experiment with new ideas that could grow our businesses. These programs help to keep more talented young people in the province and advance Nova Scotia’s competitiveness.
Nova Scotia is already home to some of the country’s top research and researchers. This year we will be investing $175,000 to establish research in Nova Scotia, a new organization that will continue the good work of the recently created $25 million Research Nova Scotia Trust, work that supports research, innovation, and hundreds of jobs here in Nova Scotia. Research Nova Scotia will combine the province’s existing research bodies into one single entity. By bringing research bodies under one umbrella we’ll be able to access more federal and private funding to better support our research opportunities and attract the best research talent to the province. This is an exciting opportunity to expand the province’s R&D capacity and better position us for leading research projects.
Madam Chairman, many of the programs I’ve just discussed rely on the skills, talents, and knowledge of our young people. We’re committed to a university system that provides quality education but that’s affordable for students. There are initiatives in this year’s budget to help do that. Nova Scotia has one of the best student assistance programs in the country and this budget continues to support that program. Provincial loans are already interest-free and there are up-front bursaries and grants that students do not have to repay. In fact, Nova Scotia offers students more than $40,000 in student assistance that they don’t have to pay back. This includes an annual $1,283 bursary to all Nova Scotian students who study in the province, which is automatically taken off their tuition.
Students also receive 40 per cent of their provincial student assistance as an up-front grant. That can be as much as $2,720 a year for a typical university student and as much as $3,120 a year for a student attending community college. Our government also pays the interest on provincial student loans for Nova Scotia grads who stay and work in the province. This year we are expanding student assistance support with a higher weekly loan amount, boosting the maximum amount from $180 a week to $200 a week per week of study. Our loan forgiveness and up-front grants can add up to the cost of tuition for an undergraduate student. By extending the loan forgiveness programs to five years, more students will qualify, including students who are enrolled in co-op programs, as well as students who work part-time to meet the cost of school. A student with a disability can receive loan forgiveness for up to 10 years of study.
Madam Chairman, we’re investing in education, youth, and job training because that’s how we can help grow our workforce and our economy. We recognize that more money needs to go into helping unemployed Nova Scotians find work. This is why we changed the $23 million employment services system to ensure we’re spending less on administration and more on front-line service delivery. The new system now includes a greater focus on finding opportunities for youth and providing more effective supports for businesses. Nova Scotians can now receive better labour market information and career planning advice.
I am also pleased to share that through the transformation of the system, administration and infrastructure costs have been reduced from 53 to 20 per cent of the funding. Savings were reinvested in front-line client services. Anyone who walks into a Nova Scotia Works centre anywhere in the province can get the support they need, regardless of their unique needs and circumstances.
Madam Chairman, we have also invested $10 million to create a new program that is intended to bridge the gap between people who are under-represented in our workforce and Nova Scotia employers who need trained workers. The hiring incentive program is aimed at under-represented groups, including First Nations, African Nova Scotians, visible minorities, Nova Scotians on ESIA, persons with disabilities, and older workers over 55 years of age. It has been designed to support participants as they receive education and training, on-the-job experience, and ongoing support and services throughout the three-year program. A two-year wage subsidy incentive will be provided to employers willing to permanently hire under-represented groups.
Nova Scotia’s Centre for Employment Innovation, managed by St. F.X. University’s Extension Department, is delivering the program in co-operation with the Nova Scotia Works centres. The Centre for Employment Innovation’s core functions include engagement, research and innovation, knowledge translation and exchange, and capacity-building within the employment programming and service delivery system.
Maintaining harmonious labour relations is key to ensuring Nova Scotia workplaces are healthy and desirable. Our team provides objective and neutral conciliation and mediation services to employers and unions across the province. They have successfully resolved more than 94 per cent of conciliation matters filed with the branch. These are the matters that the public never hears about.
When our employees are injured in our workplaces, they need to know that there is support, professional legal advice that can assist them with the workers’ safety and insurance system. This is the important work of the Workers’ Advisers Program. We are committed to ensuring that injured workers are well represented and treated fairly.
Nova Scotia needs to have confidence in our labour board. The board resolves and adjudicates, impartially and independently, issues relating to labour standards, safety, labour relations, and many other areas impacting our workplaces.
Madam Chairman, I would like to like to turn the discussion of the LAE budget to workplace safety. One of the most important responsibilities I have as the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education is the safety of the province’s workers. For example, the Donkin mine will bring economic benefits to Cape Breton and the province. A strong economy is important, but it will not be at the expense of workers’ safety. Nova Scotians need to know that we’re looking out for them when they walk into their place of work morning, noon, and night. And we are. There is significant work under way to improve workplace safety in Nova Scotia, and I would like to take a few moments to talk about that work and some of the progress we have made.
The safety conversation in Nova Scotia is shaped in large part by the Westray mine disaster. This year marked the 25th anniversary of this tragic event and the loss of 26 men. That event reignited many important discussions around workplace safety, and it helped to change the culture. We are now seeing more young people learning about workplace safety, fewer workers being injured on a job, and more high-risk industries becoming safer. Workers, employers, industry, and government are coming together like never before to address safety. Changing the workplace safety culture and improving safety in every workplace across this province takes partnership. It takes collaboration and can only be achieved by working together.
Health care is now our key focus. The health care industry is the largest single employer in the province. Unfortunately, it also has the highest injury rate. Together, we’re working to change this. We’re working closely with a range of partners, including the Workers’ Compensation Board, Department of Health and Wellness, AWARE-NS, Health Association Nova Scotia, and others to address health and safety issues in this sector.
Mental health in the workplace is also an issue that we’re focusing on these days. We must help workers take care of all aspects of their health, both physical and mental. We’re committed to working with our many partners to raise awareness and reduce stigma around PTSD and other psychological injuries. Last year, we co-hosted Nova Scotia’s first workplace mental health and PTSD conference with the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia and Tema Conter Memorial Trust. This session, we introduced amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Act that will make it easier for emergency response workers diagnosed with PTSD to access benefits.
Madam Chairman, the Council of Atlantic Premiers’ focus on reducing regulatory burden led to the identification of areas for regulatory efficiency and mutual recognition within worker’s compensation, technical safety, and occupational health and safety. Last November, regional OHS leads provided Premiers with an Atlantic work plan identifying items for mutual recognition, including safety equipment like eye and face protection, and safety training like first-aid training.
Madam Chairman, our Technical Safety Division is continuously working with industry to ensure the safety of the devices used every day by Nova Scotians at home and in public facilities. This includes electrical and fuel safety, elevators, and the boiler and pressure vessels found in most residential and commercial buildings and power facilities. Like the other divisions within the Safety Branch, Technical Safety works with the public and private partners to ensure the safety of those living and working in the province.
This summer we partnered with the amusement industry to ensure that this evolving area of public entertainment is safe and enjoyable for families living in and visiting Nova Scotia. As part of the Atlantic Premiers’ pathway to regulatory efficiency, we’re working with our government and partners across the country to create single licences for tradespeople working in these industries regulated by Technical Safety.
I am also pleased to say that the WCB is working on modernizing its business and service model to better support injured workers and businesses. They also continue to focus efforts on dealing with the unfunded liability. They are making progress; it has been reduced by 25 per cent in the last two years.
Madam Chairman, one of the most important lessons we’ve learned through our work is that true change can only happen when all come together to make workplace safety a priority. I can say we’ve come a long way.
Madam Chairman, thank you for giving me this time to talk about some of the work under way at the department. The Department of Labour and Advanced Education will continue to do its part to ensure we are focusing on the right things and getting the right outcomes. In the years ahead, we will continue to focus on the things that make a difference in the lives of Nova Scotians. I am honoured to be the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education and look forward to our accomplishments in the years ahead. Thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much, Minister Kousoulis. I will begin with the PC caucus. I will ask Mr. Orrell to please commence his questioning. You have one hour.
MR. EDDIE ORRELL: Thank you, Madam Chairman, and welcome people. Thank you for allowing me to ask questions to the Department of Labour and Advanced Education: where some of the money was spent, what some of the programming is, how we can best utilize that programming funding, and how we can best put the province back on track employment-wise, education-wise. I appreciate the opportunity to be able to ask the questions and hopefully we will get into some good discussion about what we can do to help, as well as what you guys are doing. I don’t want to be just the one who is here criticizing, I’d like to be able to sit and help and work towards building a better province.
The first few questions I’m going to ask are just on the labour market side of the funding in the budget, some of the development agreements, some of the job fund agreements. The first one I’ll ask is, the Labour Market Development Agreement programming, where are the funds for that agreement directed towards, mostly? What group, what people, where at throughout the province? Is there one specific area or not a specific area?
MR. KOUSOULIS: I can table this breakdown. Essentially as an overarching goal the department in that area, in the LMDA budget, they tried to address people who are on EI so it’s very fluid in terms of who they are helping. So, from one year or one season to the next it could be a different type of worker and the department maintains flexibility in that.
The total budget for the LMDA, and I will table this, is $88.5 million. To get a sense of it: skill development, regular is about $23 million; skills development, apprenticeship is a $650,000 investment; skills development, skills differential is $15 million. We provide targeted wage subsidies to the tune of $3.75 million; self-employment grants of $5.7 million; $1.488 million for job creation; employment assistance services, $25.9 million; labour market partnerships, $2 million; and other, which is research innovation, $900,000. For administering this program, we’re running approximately 11 per cent, 12 per cent which is about $10 million for overhead. I’ll table that.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you very much and it would be great if we could have that tabled and we could have a better look at it and breakdown of it. I appreciate that.
I guess another question towards that is, how are each of these performances, these numbers - how are they evaluated if they’re achieving their desired outcome? Are there numbers? Are there targets to shoot for, and how are we getting there, how are they measured, and how are we making sure that those numbers are at the area we need them to be to move forward?
MR. KOUSOULIS: One thing that’s interesting to note here, we are presently negotiating with the federal government for a new LMDA, as all provinces are. The federal government actually sets a standard for us that we have to hit and what the federal government does is it measures the actual - they audit all of our work and they measure the outcomes in terms of activity that we do - so how many people we’re helping, what level of help we’re providing them.
The new agreement, which is actually being negotiated now - which the federal government will, as well, in the future be auditing - is actually going to have standards that will have us looking at the employment outcomes, because I think we can all agree that doing work for people who are looking for jobs might not result in the ultimate goal which is attaching them back to the workforce. I’m very pleased that the way we will be measuring our success will be changing, and that is being negotiated right now and it will be in place within this budget in the coming year. Thank you.
MR. ORRELL: How often are your employment agencies, Nova Scotia Works employment service centres, reporting their results to the department, their successes, their failures, whatever; and then, how often is the federal government going to monitor that and what happens if we don’t reach the standards that the federal government requires?
MR. KOUSOULIS: We’re doing quarterly reports with each of the agencies. We also do regular visits with them, pretty much it’s announced visits. We also provide all that information to the federal government, in terms of our audit, on an annual basis.
MR. ORRELL: Are there specific targets for each amount of dollars that are spent in your skills development program and your targeted wage subsidies? Are you saying skills development was $23 million, and your targeted wage subsidy, $3.5 million to $7 million? Are there specific job numbers that are going to be associated with that kind of money?
You created the Nova Scotia Works program to decrease the administration and put more money into the front-line development. Most employment agencies in the province probably didn’t know how many interventions or how many people they put back to work before this happened. To decrease the administration costs to drive up the amount of money spent on the front-line workers, hopefully would improve the outcomes that workers in the province, or people in the province who are trying to return to work, are going to achieve.
Are there targets? What do we have beforehand and what are we looking to achieve with it because of the extra bit of money, and can you share the numbers that we might be looking at with that?
MR. KOUSOULIS: It’s a tricky answer because what the outcomes are depend on the area and it depends on the workforce. In some areas, you might be looking for farming; in other areas, you might be looking at trying to attach people to jobs in the wine industry. In other areas, you could be looking at the digital economy. What we try to do is maintain the department to be flexible to address the needs of the area and not be rigid.
A big part of it, as I mentioned earlier, it really depends on the workforce, the individuals who are trying to attach back to the workforce and what their needs and skill sets are and marrying their needs and skill sets to the labour market that is in that area. If there are gaps, that’s where the department does step in with some increase in training to try to meet those gaps and attach them.
MR. ORRELL: We’ll use me in Cape Breton, for example, and you’re using the wine industry in the Valley. If the training for a person to work in the wine industry costs $10,000 per individual and training in Cape Breton for someone who wants to take a course to work in the mine costs $20,000, is the flexibility available through your agencies to allow that to happen, so that the agency has the flexibility to use the funds according to where that flexibility is needed, so that if a highly industrialized area or an area that needs more funding to meet the demands in that area, does each individual agency have that flexibility to use more or less, depending on what they need within their agency in their area?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Depending on what training the individual is looking for, we would assess and see if the job is available there for them. Depending on the amount of funding, we would do our best to provide it. It really depends on the individual circumstance. There’s not an all overarching yes or no. We fund or don’t fund because as you used in your example, $2,000 or $10,000 or $20,000 per individual, it really depends on the chances of them getting attached to the workforce - is there a job there available for them?
One example I will give that overarches all of the province, the skills development that’s under the LMDA provides funding for 2,600 students to go to the community colleges. That would be across the province. As students are EI eligible, they can get their tuition paid for through the LMDA, which then allows them to go to community college. There you get the flexibility of the differences of a campus that might be in a rural area or an urban area, in terms of what that campus is offering and what the goal is, if that campus offers what is available in the job market there.
The outcomes there are measured very tightly because that is direct funding going to attach an individual to the labour market. To date, we are averaging over 80 per cent attachment to the labour market after we invest the monies for an individual to go to a community college.
MR. ORRELL: If attachment to the labour force was a course that wasn’t offered in the province, would that flexibility be offered to those individuals, that group or those workplaces to allow for a person who is going to be out of province training, for that funding to be transferred to them or with them to an area that’s outside?
I’ll use an example of, we’ll say, a heavy equipment operator’s course that a gentleman will have a job but couldn’t get into the one in Windsor, or wherever they are, but there was one in, we’ll say Moncton, would that money be offered to them as what would be the pay in the province or what would be the cost of the program in the province they are going to? Would that flexibility be afforded to them at that time?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Our programs do have the flexibility of an individual, specifically in the community colleges, for going from one area to another area. If an individual is in Sydney and the program is not offered there, they could go to the community college in Pictou, if there is room at that institution.
In terms of the specific question about an individual leaving the province, there is another program under the LMDA called Fast Forward. That allows a student to get funding for their tuition to an out-of-province institution, and the criteria is that that student must maintain their Nova Scotia residency because we’re spending Nova Scotia dollars for that individual. They would leave the province to get their studies but they would maintain their residency here in the province.
MR. ORRELL: So, that would just cover tuition? Would it cover travel, books, the same as it would if you were within the province?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The extra charges for them that would help them out as they continue to collect their EI benefits, that would be for their general living expenses, and the Fast Forward program would cover the tuition.
MR. ORRELL: Yes, but the general EI doesn’t cover most of their living expenses if they were in a minimum wage job before and going into a program that is out of province.
Just recently I had a gentleman on community services who was coming to a school here in Halifax. He had his tuition paid for, his travel and so on and so forth. When he got here he didn’t realize that the cost of his rent was going to be twice as much as was allowable in his living allowance. The chance now is that the gentleman may have to drop out of university because he doesn’t have that living money.
I brought it up yesterday and I’ve spoken with the Community Services Minister because this gentleman was on community services, but if this gentleman was on unemployment and was into the same situation, is there enough money to make sure that they can cover their cost of living so that that’s not a concern, it’s just to be able to continue their studies and then come back into the workforce?
I realize they can keep their residency in Nova Scotia, I think that’s a great idea and I think that maybe I’m a little backward thinking but I think if a person has the ability to go and there’s a job guaranteed, then I think to cover most of the costs would be a great thing. But if it’s not there, they can get there and realize that and it’s been all for naught, so they put a lot of time and effort into approving and making sure the person was a fit, that the job was there. But if the person can’t afford to live there, is that allowable under some of the expenses that the person is able to claim?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Essentially, the EI benefits you receive are to cover your living expense, but areas where we will go over and above and beyond to help the individual out, are in terms of travelling and child care, but one area where our community colleges in-province help individuals on an individual basis - and it’s a flexible program that really depends on the need of the individual - our community colleges have one fund which is a $6.5 million donation by the Sobey family, where they will give grants to individuals who require assistance. That is administered by the community colleges, not by our department. Any individual that you know of who is at a community college, I would encourage them to speak to an administrator at their college and try to access that grant.
MR. ORRELL: Is that program well advertised because I didn’t know about that? If it’s not, I definitely will tell people who are attending community college. How do we get that out so that the students do understand that that program, that funding is there?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The total fund that’s been raised outside of the $6.5 million donation by the Sobey family is $19 million and the advertising of the availability of the program is all done on campus. On campuses, the colleges would be advertising that type of program, so any individuals you know of, encourage them to check in at their colleges.
MR. ORRELL: That’s great, thank you. The Canada Job Fund agreement, where are those funds targeted for and which individuals and where do they go to access the Canada Job Fund agreements?
MR. KOUSOULIS: An individual would access these programs through any of our Nova Scotia Works organizations. When they go to one of the organizations, they would first meet with a career practitioner, and with that practitioner they would do a plan.
As a breakdown, there are three areas where the $13 million breaks down and goes to. One is our START program, which is an actual wage subsidy provided to an individual. The other program is One Journey, which is a study program and also the end goal is attachment to the workforce. The third area is our workplace education which is a grant that is provided to the actual employers. What that allows them to do is access funding to provide more skills and training for their workers and generally to stretch our dollars the most. That’s done in a classroom type of setting so that you can train multiple people at once.
MR. ORRELL: The performance of each of these programs, how is that measured? Is it measured in numbers of people who are working? The amount of subsidies to the employer? Amount of dollars spent? Retention? Starts? How is that measured?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Within our START program we have approximately, in a year, 5,000 employees coming through it. They are working, so they are receiving a wage subsidy. What we find is that 52 per cent will have the position after a year period.
In our One Journey, the outcomes there in terms of increased studying and skills training and then attachment to the workforce, we have approximately 1,650 people that we put through that program a year. The outcomes there, 68 per cent of them attach to the labour market.
The workplace education, those individuals already have jobs but the number of workers who go through - and again, here we’re able to stretch our dollars - is 10,000 workers. But you could have the same worker getting a little bit of training year after year, so it could be continual upgrading that companies are accessing on behalf of their workforce.
MR. ORRELL: So, 50 per cent of people who enter the START program are employed after the first year, I think that’s right. I’m having a hard time hearing but I think that’s what I heard. What would be the ultimate goal?
I know the ultimate goal would be 100 per cent, but for the dollars that are spent, what is the target that we shoot for there? Is it 50 per cent? Are we achieving that target, or is it 75 per cent? I know the ideal would be 100 per cent but no one is going to guarantee 100 per cent of anything. What would be the ultimate target that you would like to see for that and how do we achieve that?
MR. KOUSOULIS: In terms of the START program, although at face value that 52 per cent might sound like a low number, this is actually a group of workers that have been out of the workforce for two years. So, what we do is, to get them back into the workforce, we provide a wage subsidy to a corporation or a small business to hire that individual, and ensure that the company is not picking up an individual and then dropping them and coming back the following year. Once an organization participates in this program, after participating in it for a full year, they have to wait two years before they can participate for that job again. This ensures that there’s not going to be any abuse by employers to just have wages subsidized and dump the employee year after year and pick up new ones.
In terms of having an employee who has been out of the workforce for two years, it’s a challenge to get them back into the workforce and it’s a challenge for the individual, because they’ll need to get their mindset back and into it, get their skill set back in, and get their lifestyle back into working every day. In terms of having a set target, we don’t, because the individuals have different needs, but in terms of what we’ve been hitting on the 50 per cent mark, we’re very pleased with that. We’re always trying to improve it, but we are pleased with being able to attach 50 per cent of people who haven’t worked on average two years or more.
MR. ORRELL: Are there certain areas of the province that are - I mean, 50 per cent, you’re going to have people who are doing better and people who are doing worse, obviously, to get to that median. Are there areas of the province that are doing better than other areas of the province and is there a reason for that? Is it education? I know a couple of the Works offices in Cape Breton are doing very well because coming into this they’ve had a lot of the training that was necessary beforehand, and then they made sure that the people who were coming on board received that training. Cape Breton is a high unemployment area and still doing very well.
Are there areas that are doing better and worse and is there anything we can do to try to make sure that the areas that are doing worse than some of the areas are sharing those ideas? Ultimately, we’d like to get everybody back. If we’re going to spend that money, we want to get the best results we possibly can. I know that people are working hard to do that, but is there some way that we can ensure that that 50 per cent is a 50 per cent average across the province or better, and if there are areas that are doing better or worse, is there any way we can make sure that they share that information so that does happen?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The way we break down Nova Scotia in terms of these centres is into four regions. As an example, I know you’re a member in Cape Breton. Cape Breton accesses approximately 30 per cent of the program funding and what we have found is that the 52 per cent is almost flat across all areas, all four regions in the province. A big part of that is they are collaboratively working together. The work centres get together on a monthly basis and share their best practices and share their ideas on what challenges they face. Due to that, I would say it’s not surprising that they’re all in about the same target of 52 per cent, give or take a few percentage points.
MR. ORRELL: You say that after one year, 50 per cent are guaranteed to be - or not guaranteed - that 50 per cent of the people who are still working. Is there anything we can do to guarantee that after that year, that employee is maintained in that job, be it as the Graduate to Opportunity program is a little less of a wage subsidy maybe, to keep that person working? If they can get attached in a two-year program, a two-year cycle, chances are that the employer would get used to having an employee with their skills and abilities and would be able to stay longer.
Is there talk about maybe providing a bit more of a wage subsidy for a person in their second or third year to guarantee that that person stays in that job? If not, my fear is that you’ll spend that money, you get that person a job, and at the end of the year the employer or the employee would end that relationship and that money would be - I won’t say lost, because the skills they developed on it would be transferrable somewhere else - but it would be lost to that area especially.
MR. KOUSOULIS: As we have the opportunity to look at our outcomes with the federal government, we are actually using their changes in reporting internally to look at how we evaluate our own policies.
In terms of the program, there already is flexibility built into it, so depending on the individual worker going to an organization, it is on a case-by-case basis but you can find that the wage subsidy could be anywhere from three months to 18 months and the dollar amount can vary as well, but it is on a case-by-case basis.
Our goal always is to look at the individual, look at the organization hiring them, and try to match them and try to keep them employed, for eternity would be the goal.
MR. ORRELL: I guess the place near and dear to my heart is people with disabilities. I worked in the health care system for 25 years before I got into politics. Seeing people with disabilities who were not employable for reasons other than their intellectual ability, I mean they had a wheelchair or they couldn’t get to work because the Handi-Trans wouldn’t allow it, there was no money available for some conversion into a van. There were agencies available beforehand that worked strictly with people with disabilities, to make sure that any accommodations they needed would be made available, the funding would be there for it.
Now that they’ve joined, people with disabilities usually cost a little more to make that attachment to the workforce, but once that attachment is made, a person with a disability will stay a lot longer because they don’t tend to move and migrate job to job as much. If the employer knows they have a disability that they can accommodate, if they need a 20-minute rest or a break and they can go sit in a corner or sit in a back room, a lunch room and get that break, they tend to work longer and harder.
Is there more money available for interventions with people with disabilities, now that the merger has taken place? Or is it just in the one budget and not seen as a separate budget with that extra little bit of money?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Currently, the LMDA does address that exact need and requirement. Although the money flows through us, the money goes to DCS and DCS, as they assess the individuals with disabilities, they will then fund our working centres. They will bring the individual. They will bring the amount of money to the working centre and fund that individual on a case-by-case basis. The current amount of funding that we get is $8.2 million from the federal government, which the province matches for a total of $16.4 million. In our new LMDA that we’re currently renegotiating, this is one of the areas that we’re looking to have increased funding, but that funding would flow through to DCS and they would administer the program with their clients.
MR. ORRELL: Are there checks and balances put in place to make sure that that funding actually reaches the people with disabilities and doesn’t just go into the general budgets of some of these associations? It’s easy to take an organization, have somebody come in that has a skill training development need, and send them on that training. The cost and the effort is a lot easier than someone who has a disability that needs more adaptation, more time in the training, and so on and so forth. Are those funds really getting to the people they need and how are we measuring how many people with disabilities are receiving the training and the funding and what their outcomes are?
MR. KOUSOULIS: In terms of auditing and ensuring the money is going to its intended uses, again, this is under DCS, but DCS would be required to have independent audits done and to provide that information. We are in the midst of revamping Nova Scotia Works now with the new funds coming in from the federal government. This is an area that is of importance to our government and that is also highlighted by the fact that, in last year’s budget, we gave a one-time increase to the Department of Community Services of $10 million, to specifically address under-represented groups such as disabilities with attachment to the labour market.
MR. ORRELL: How are we being held accountable for those funds that are being spent? DCS gets it. They lay it through you. Who’s being held accountable for how those funds are being spent and when they’re being spent and what they’re being spent on?
MR. ORRELL: You were talking about a new federal funding program coming into play. Is this going to be a new program or new money or is it going to be the old money rolled into a funding program that will do the same thing with a different name? Or is it more money and a new program that would target more people, with more money?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The funding is very fluid because we’re actually currently in negotiations with the federal government. One thing that has been indicated to us is there will not be a decrease in funding. What we’re doing is looking at - we’re negotiating to try to have increases in the funding, of course. What the federal government is doing is they are streamlining how the funding comes to us. What we’re negotiating with them is, we did actually indicate to them that we do want to protect areas of disabilities and ensure that it doesn’t fall into an umbrella, that it will always have the level of funding that it has in order to meet its goals and outcomes.
MR. ORRELL: I want to move on to a little different area now. I know that over the last couple of years the transformation from 52 agencies to 30-some - maybe I’m wrong on the numbers, but anyway - the agencies went down in the administration to get the administration costs in line so that more money could be spent on the front line.
I know there was a cost to that transformation. Is there any indication or can you give me an indication of how much was actually spent or what the total cost of that transformation was from the number of different agencies down to the Nova Scotia Works program, and what would the total cost of that have been? It doesn’t have to be perfect but just approximately.
MR. KOUSOULIS: Our former delivery network had 51 agreements in place; our new network has 18 agreements in place. The front-line staff has actually gone from 206 formerly, up to 244 today.
In terms of costs, we did help the former delivery network transition, if they did have any sort of cost incurred if they were winding down part of the business or if they incurred a layoff, but we did that within the framework of what the budget was and any cost savings that were pulled out from the reduction of administrators, the following year or six months, would have been moved into the new delivery model and that’s why we saw an increase of 38 front-line staff workers.
MR. ORRELL: What was the dollar cost of the transformation from - we’ll say it cost $100 million to operate 51 agencies at the time - to transform down to the 18 and less administration to put more people in the front line, what was the cost of the budget it would have taken to perform that transformation?
MR. KOUSOULIS: I wouldn’t have that cost currently because those are 51 separate agencies. What we did is we transitioned them by keeping their funding going after the assessment. In terms of funding, there was an equal amount of funding overall from one budget to the next, but in terms of how the funds were allocated, they were shifted from the less efficient organizations to the more efficient organizations.
MR. ORRELL: Administration was decreased down so you could put more money on the front line. How much more money was put in the front line because of that, and if that was the case, you knew what it would cost to run the 51 agencies before they were funded through the Department of Labour and Advanced Education at the time, down to 18 agencies now. The cost to make that transformation in layoffs, buyouts, new equipment, and new office space - there must have been a cost. I’d just like to know what the cost of that was compared to what you were paying before, to get to where you are now; then, the next question will be, what is the cost of running it now?
I mean, the cost is probably the same with less administrative costs so more money on the front line. What did it take to get to there? How much money did it take? Did it take $10 million or $50 million, or did it take no cost at all and you just moved some money around? There must have been a cost to doing that transformation. If the idea was to put money back into the front line, I guess my big concern is, if it cost $20 million to do that transformation, how long will it take to recoup that money so that it actually gets to the front line? The spend to get there would have been X number of dollars, and that’s what I’m shooting towards.
MR. KOUSOULIS: If you go over the last few budgets, the actual amount that has been going to this area is $23 million a year, and that’s 2016-17, 2017-18. In terms of the actual cost that the centres incurred, we don’t have that information here but we can get that. What we do know is that the savings have gone to more front-line workers.
I indicated a few minutes ago that there are 38 per cent more front-line workers, but in terms of our year-to-year budget, what we did is we still kept funding the organizations under the old model. We gave them the runway so they would know when the changes were coming. They managed their organizations. When the changes were completed, funding increased to the organizations that had better outcomes, that had better percentages of front-line help to the workers, because our ultimate goal is to get people back and attached to the workforce. Now where we are, is seeing that more of the money goes to help the front-line workers.
MR. ORRELL: I appreciate that. I know for a fact that new leaseholders, new combined employment service groups, had to move. The upgrades to some of the offices with equipment, spacing, technology, cost a lot of money. Some of them had severance packages. Some of the managers and some of the other groups had to be bought out because they weren’t going to be transferred over. What was the cost to do that compared to the money that’s going to be invested in the front line?
I’d just like to know like - I know, if I buy a new car, I sell my old car and take the cost of the old car and put it on the new car. I know how much that costs in the end. It costs me an extra $10,000 to get that new car but I have a new car. That, over the next couple of years in payments, in repairs, and so on and so forth would even itself out. I’d just like to know, that cost to do the transformation, if it was X number of dollars to get to the point where we’re putting that back in the front line, how long is it going to take and what would the cost of that be?
MR. KOUSOULIS: In terms of where we were and where we got to in terms of what the overhead should be, the offices and administrative costs under the old model, 53 per cent of the $23 million went to fund overhead, which was administration and infrastructure. That would be your leases and that would be your people who are behind the scenes. Under the new formula, only 27 per cent of the $23 million goes to fund those areas.
Areas where we’ve had improvements is by sharing space, by moving from three - in some areas we had three different working centres down into one, but in terms of the individual cost that each centre would have incurred, we wouldn’t have that information because what we did is, when they were notified that they would have a change in funding, they were given a runway so that they could manage their business through that process. We always worked within our $23 million budget. In terms of the transformation, we picked a point in time, did our audits, and then what we did is we looked at where the funding would go and how it would hit the front lines, and we gave everybody notice so that they could transform their businesses. In terms of a car analogy, it would be like saying we have 51 members and let’s look at what the cost of cars are. You’d have to go and interview the 51 members individually and look at it.
In terms of the cost that those centres incurred, we don’t have it. We stayed within our fiscal envelope and we allowed them to transition for whatever cost they were incurring. After the notice period, then the money was shifted to the organizations that had much lower administration in infrastructure and the money was shifted to the front lines to get people back to work.
MR. ORRELL: If I could rephrase that then, you take the 51 cars and you go down to 31, the 21 that still had money owed on them haven’t bought out. If there’s a lease in an office that was moving into another group, at least they’ll have to be paid but you stayed within the $23 million. What suffered when that was going on, if you didn’t go over your budget, if you stayed within that budget, what suffered is the people couldn’t do or perform while that transformation was going on, because if not, it didn’t cost anything to do the transformation, which is a great thing. But I know that leases had to be bought out, I know that the equipment had to be bought new, but if they stay within that envelope, that’s great, but is that actually what happened?
MR. KOUSOULIS: In terms of costs that were extraordinary within that one period to get to where we are today, the one-time cost would have been approximately $4.6 million, but what that resulted in is us reducing our administrative costs every year going forward by 26 per cent of the $23 million, which is about $6 million more going to the front lines and going to helping people attach to the workforce again.
MR. ORRELL: That’s great, thank you. That’s what I wanted to know. I know at the time there were a lot of issues that happened with different groups and I know in the Valley that a couple of the service providers that didn’t get agreements were merged with other groups and there were other issues associated. Have there been any outstanding issues in the last six months to a year or six months, we’ll say, that are going to be difficult to resolve, or will it cost money to resolve?
MR. KOUSOULIS: We had some challenges in the beginning of the process but we’re quite confident that we’ve worked through most of the challenges with the organizations.
MR. ORRELL: I know you said that front-line staffing went up, I think it was 26 per cent, and that would be from 206 employees to 244 employees. Were any specialty people involved in that or did everybody who worked in an employment agency before they merged, were they added as new people or were they - I guess I don’t know how to say it - would the 206 people who were working prior to be the same 206 who were employed, so those extra 30-some people were new people employed with new skills and were they shifted around evenly throughout the province?
MR. KOUSOULIS: There were some layoffs within the original 51 agreements that we had but most of those employees were absorbed into the other working centres, so there would have been very few layoffs.
One thing we did do within the new working centres is we have 18 individuals who actually came from the private sector, from the business sector. What they’re doing is trying to drive home the attachment to the workforce and that’s where we have seen a lot of dividends pay off for that investment into those individuals. There are 18 agreements, so each of the areas would have one of those individuals.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: There’s a few seconds left.
MR. ORRELL: That’s fine, I’ll let the NDP start from there.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: I will now move to the NDP caucus. Ms. Martin.
MS. TAMMY MARTIN: Thanks so much, Madam Chairman, and thank you to the minister and his staff for sitting here and taking all our questions. I have to say that it’s much nicer to sit and do this than to stand in the other room and do it. It’s quite a bit more comfortable.
If I could just start with some general information. I’m interested in speaking about labour relations but now, because it’s separated, will the minister be able to speak on both labour relations and labour because the department was split?
MR. KOUSOULIS: In terms of myself being the Minister of Labour, just for background information, anything to do in our government with labour relations, I’m recused from. Whenever our government is talking about anything around labour relations, in Cabinet or in Treasury Board, I get the heads-up from staff and staff knows I’m recused from those conversations. The reason is that although I am the Labour Minister, I’m not the labour minister of government, so I’m not part of the negotiation of government.
My job would be that I might need to intervene at some point. A prime example was that although I recused myself, The Chronicle Herald case where an arbitrator was appointed, the Labour Minister in this department is not the Labour Minister of only government workers, they are the Labour Minister of all workers in the province.
As I mentioned in my opening comments, our department has mediators who have solved 94 per cent of the cases that came through them. I get advised when there are layoffs, such as the current Sears layoffs that we had. I get advised of all layoffs, so in terms of labour negotiations, I have nothing to do with that with the government. The best example I could give is I am Switzerland when it comes to labour relations within the government.
MS. MARTIN: Given that we have two separate ministers for labour relations now, are there two separate budgets?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Minister Furey is the Minister of Labour Relations, so that would be government negotiating with their employees, within the Public Service, within health care and education. I’m the Labour Minister, which would be encompassing all employees.
There might be the chance that, as with any organization, whether the employer or employee group might ask me to intervene, the same could happen in government, that one of the unions could ask me to intervene or the government itself, which would be Minister Furey, could ask me to intervene. At that point, the department and all its resources around mediation would kick in. Every situation is different so it is a case-by-case basis. Then we would assess whether, first, we would intervene and then what process we would take.
MS. MARTIN: Thank you to the minister for that background, that helps to clear it up. Before I forget, just following up on my colleague’s comment about the FTEs going from 206 to 244, understanding that at the end of the day - I believe you said there were some layoffs - is there an actual number, do you have or could the minister provide me with an actual number of the net loss?
MR. KOUSOULIS: In terms of the overall there was a net gain, but I believe what the member is asking for is how many individuals were impacted by a loss of employment. We don’t have that information. Our goal was to have as many of them transition into the other agencies but sometimes a circumstance, such as a geographical location or they just might have had an opportunity to go work elsewhere, would have meant that they did not stay within one of the Nova Scotia Works centres. But that is a number we can engage the department to provide to the member.
MS. MARTIN: Thank you to the minister. If I could ask you some specifics about some numbers that I’m looking at in the budget, for example on Page 16.2, there is an increase under Operating Costs. I just wonder if you could elaborate on that, on the estimate from 2016-17 to 2017-18.
MR. KOUSOULIS: The majority of that increase is a one-time investment in our apprenticeship IT system. That’s the IT system that is going to be tracking the hours that apprenticeships gain because we weren’t really tracking it that well before and now that we are looking at having apprentices from other provinces come and go more fluidly, that’s an investment that we had to make and it also helps our apprentices track their hours and reach their certification. That investment is $3.3 million.
MS. MARTIN: Specifically, if I could draw your attention to Labour Services, there is a significant decrease in the estimate from 2016-17 to 2017-18. I wonder if you could give me some background on that, please.
MR. KOUSOULIS: The decrease there is two components. One was an IT project that was a one-time cost of $442,000. The other component is $100,000 that was transferred to the Department of Immigration. That will be within their budget on a go-forward basis.
MS. MARTIN: Forgive me if I’m missing something, and I very well could be, but from what I see, the budget for Labour Services is significantly decreased in estimates from one year to the next. If I could ask the minister, is that what you’re referring to with IT?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Yes. The projected has ended. If you look at the amount, the 2016-17 estimate was $7.886 million, and if you look at the estimate for this year, it’s $7.344 million; $440,000 of that is the one-time IT project, which has completed.
There’s another $100,000 that is being transferred out of that budget of Labour Services. That will be moved to the Department of Immigration because it’s targeting our immigrants and helping them with their labour needs. It fits better within the Department of Immigration.
MS. MARTIN: On Page 16.3, under Corporate Policy and Services, there’s a significant difference in the estimate and the actual for Planning Research and Accountability.
MR. KOUSOULIS: Planning Research and Accountability is the area where we have our economists who would do some analysis. It’s an area that traditionally is underspent. We have the funds available to us if we do require them, but it’s an area that, overall, year after year, is underspent. If we looked at last year’s budget, we would notice that the actual would have come in lower, and this year, the estimate is within $63,000 of year over year.
MS. MARTIN: If there’s such a difference between what’s actually spent and what the estimate is, why is it consistently overestimated, I guess? Would there not be better places for the department to put their money?
MR. KOUSOULIS: That’s a great question. The money is there if we require it. But if we’re finding as the year goes on that we don’t need to hire outside professionals to help us with any sort of market studies, the money is available for us to move to other areas where we would face budget pressures. Money within line-by-line would ebb and flow within areas.
It’s the overall budget that we try to keep very, very tight, but if we have a bit of a budget pressure in one area, we might find that we can shift some resources over because it will have more of a return on our dollars invested. For example, like when the oil crisis happened in Alberta, we had to shift resources to many individuals who were coming home and looking for work. That’s where we maintain some flexibility to do that.
MS. MARTIN: On these two pages specifically, and I apologize if you answered this before, under Programs and Services, Administration - Pages 16.3, 16.4, and 16.5 - there is a significant difference. I guess my first question is, why is there such a difference in administration? Secondly, has there been any job loss associated with this decrease?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Can I get clarification - which page are we on?
MS. MARTIN: Sure, Administration on Pages 16.3, 16.4, and 16.5. Each time it’s under Programs and Services.
MR. KOUSOULIS: If you look at Administration under Safety, funds were actually shifted from there to Occupational Health and Safety. If we look at Administration under Skills and Learning, what happened there was we received federal funding that had not been budgeted at the time. It came after last year’s budget, and that was targeted to older workers and attaching them to the labour force.
We received the funding, we spent the funding, and the reason it’s not reflected is it was a one-time program so it had a huge bump-up with the money that was transferred by the federal government. It is something we’re negotiating to receive again under the new workforce agreement that is currently in negotiations with our federal partners.
MS. MARTIN: To clarify, that looked after the items on Pages 16.4 and 16.5, I believe. Could you address Administration on Page 16.3, under Programs and Services?
MR. KOUSOULIS: This is another example, as I stated earlier, about funds moving within an area. That’s an area where we have flexible funding. If you look at last year’s Budget Estimate of $493,000, the actual spent was $338,000. This year our budget reflecting going forward is $331,000. If you actually look at the actual spent last year, you can see that there was an overspend within Corporate Policy and Services of close to $0.5 million. That would just be ebb and flow of the monies moving to areas where there was greater need.
MS. MARTIN: Can the minister clarify then, from the monies switching around and the differences, say, in the ebb and flow of the budgets, and the decreases that I see line by line, have there been any jobs affected or lost because of this transfer of funds or decrease in budgets?
MR. KOUSOULIS: We have had no decreases in FTEs within the department. There have been no layoffs.
MS. MARTIN: The government’s website on Public Services Sustainability states that the government is committed to meaningful collective bargaining to achieve the outcome of sustainable public services in Nova Scotia. I understand what you said before about differentiating yourself from Minister Furey. I respectfully quote you from before when you were talking to my colleague about harmonious labour relations. Can you please explain to me how Bill No. 148 demonstrates a commitment to meaningful collective bargaining and would promote harmonious labour relations? I believe the demonstrations would suggest otherwise.
MR. KOUSOULIS: In terms of Bill No. 148 and how it affects labour relationships, I can’t provide an opinion to that as the Labour Minister. Bill No. 148 is a bill brought by the employer. Our department actually works with the employer and the employees and the unions that represent them, not only on matters of full arbitration but even smaller matters as well. As I mentioned earlier, our department’s and my position is neutral on labour negotiations, so I would have no comment or no opinion on Bill No. 148.
MS. MARTIN: Was the minister present during the discussions on whether or not to proclaim this bill?
MR. KOUSOULIS: No, I was not. I was informed by my deputy that the bill had been proclaimed after the employer notified our department.
MS. MARTIN: Forgive me if I’m wrong, but the employer is the NSHA, and the funder is the province. I would think that you would be informed by the province. Am I not correct?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The department was informed by the province, and I was informed by the department when they became aware that the bill was going to be proclaimed.
MS. MARTIN: To be clear, it came from the Department of Health and Wellness. I’m sure through discussion that it could be something that the employer may have wanted, but it’s something that would have had to have come from the Department of Health and Wellness to implement.
MR. KOUSOULIS: I had to check because I was informed about the proclamation of it by the deputy, Duff Montgomerie. He was informed by the head of deputies, who is Laura Lee Langley. I was not in the Cabinet Room. Any time there’s a labour discussion, I am recused from those discussions, so I had no indication until we were notified, as the Department of Labour and Advanced Education for the province, that the bill would be proclaimed.
MS. MARTIN: What if any impact through the approach the government took with proclaiming and implementing a wage pattern and wage package and Bill No. 148, along with other bills, how does the minister think that’s going to affect the labour market and the economic growth or stalemate of the province?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Again, Madam Chairman, as the Labour Minister I’m neutral on these so I can’t give an opinion as to the legality of it, what the courts will say. I’m there in case one of the sides asks our department to assist in any way. That’s what we’re available for, it’s a unique situation. Any other minister or member can speak to it but it’s almost like the Speaker of the House. The Speaker doesn’t get involved in matters of legislation because they’re neutral; the Labour Minister doesn’t get involved in matters of labour because they’re neutral.
MS. MARTIN: If I could draw your attention to Page 16.2, the item in the budget, Staff Funded by External Agencies. I’m just looking for some clarification of what exactly that means. Is that what you meant before, when you talked about accounting services and legal services?
MR. KOUSOULIS: If you actually look at our estimate last year in the budget, we had 512.9 positions fully funded within the budget. They call them full-time equivalents, which is essentially a full-time position but two part-time jobs might equal one full-time job.
If you look at this year’s budget it increases to 518.9. The brackets underneath that are indicating the 248.3 last year and the 252.7 this year. Those are still positions out of the number above, but those are funded by the federal government through our LMDAs. We’re identifying the total amount of full-time jobs and how much of those are funded by the federal government. The number below would be the amount of people who are funded by the provincial government - it just adds more clarification to how the funding works within a department.
MS. MARTIN: Have there been any discussions within the department to increase statutory holidays for the province, in keeping with other provinces in Canada?
MR. KOUSOULIS: In the last mandate, we did add one more statutory holiday which was our Family Day in February. That brought us to a higher amount of statutory holidays than we were before. Currently, we’ve had no discussions around statutory holidays in terms of adding any to the province. I was very pleased to see that one added in. I think in the middle of February, having a holiday to go out and enjoy the winter, which I love to do, is a great idea and I encourage everyone to enjoy our winters here because if you don’t embrace it you’re going to be miserable.
MS. MARTIN: True enough. Can the minister describe or explain how the federal funding has changed since the Trudeau Government came in in 2015?
MR. KOUSOULIS: When the Trudeau Government was first elected, it did make a one-time increase to our funding of $6 million for that year. As we are in negotiations now, we’re getting high-level indication that that $6 million would be given to us as an increase to our base funding and it would be there ongoing going forward.
MS. MARTIN: Do you have a bottom-line number of the difference between what the federal government funds in your department as opposed to how much of your budget is funded provincially and/or federally?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Give or take $1 million, federal recoveries are $119 million. Our total budget is $376.1 million. This represents that the federal government - the recoveries we get from the federal government equate to approximately 31.6 per cent of our total budget.
MS. MARTIN: Thank you to the minister for providing that. On Page 16.3, under Programs and Services, you’ve listed Professional Services. I would just like if you could explain what that entails.
MR. KOUSOULIS: Professional Services would primarily be the lease expenses that we pay for our locations of LAE. Another small cost would be the commissionaires that we employ that are on-site. You will also notice that in 2016-17, the actual amount jumped up by approximately a bit over $1 million, and that is because where we were housed prior to last year, that was a building owned by Nova Scotia Power and they were repurposing it. At the end of our lease we actually got evicted. (Laughter) So we did an RFP and we ended up getting a little bit more square footage to house our employees.
The $1 million was the transportation and moving costs. Our location now, which is something that government does whenever they’re moving, it’s the more modern offices. In the old offices, you would put all the managers around the outside and they’d get all the great views and get the sunlight, but then people on the inside would be sitting in darkness.
The new way we do offices is that we allow the light to flood through the space, which creates happier workers and it creates a much better environment. As well, our new offices have cubicles where staff can move around very efficiently. If a staff person had to move, they could literally take their filing cabinet and walk it to another area, within five minutes they’d be set up at a new cubicle. As our work teams are dynamic, they can move around, and primarily the $1 million expense covered us in our new workspace and the new way that we move forward with housing our employees.
The other part that does as well not only makes for happier employees, it reduces the overall footprint per employee. In the new space, we have more ability to have more people in the office. I believe, if memory serves me correct from my previous department, the new way that we actually create our workspaces results in about a 20 per cent reduction to the space required per employee within government.
MS. MARTIN: On Page 16.4, I will draw your attention to labour standards and the Workers’ Advisers Program - there, too, has been a cut. I wonder if the minister could expand on the reasons behind that and what it has affected.
MR. KOUSOULIS: This is a scenario where we had another IT project that was a one-time funding of $413,000. In the specific area that we’re looking at, labour standards, that was where the $100,000 transfer to Immigration was located under. This is providing more of the details in the front page that you had asked about earlier. It’s the same information, just provided in more details, so that’s where the $100,000 is.
MS. MARTIN: If I could just follow up with the minister, to be clear, what about the Workers’ Advisers Program? There seems to be quite a difference there as well.
MR. KOUSOULIS: That’s where the $400,000 IT project was.
MS. MARTIN: The Westray bill was proclaimed or enacted in April of this year and just recently there has been much discussion about it. I’m wondering if the minister will ensure that workplace deaths will be treated as a crime scene and/or followed up with the same procedures as a crime would, and is the department willing to enforce the Westray bill?
MR. KOUSOULIS: In areas where the department does their investigation and feels it is criminal, we will work with our law enforcement partners and pursue criminal charges.
Every workplace accident is investigated, so the answer would be yes. If it was criminal activity and we feel it wasn’t an accident, that it was something that is criminal, we will use the legislation and work with our law enforcement partners to pursue criminal charges.
MS. MARTIN: Just to drill down on that one step further, if it was a crime scene the police would be there first, from what I understand - this would be an after-the-fact, you would involve police if you thought that there was reason to believe that it was criminal activity. Enforcing this bill would involve the authorities right from the start. Is that something that the minister and the department is prepared to follow through on?
MR. KOUSOULIS: This is a very serious area. Our government actually two years ago hired a special prosecutor for these types of instances. There is one case where criminal charges were laid. The matter is in front of the courts, so we can’t comment on them because the court is a separate body.
In terms of the police or RCMP, you are correct - they would be the first on the scene. They do work with our department very closely. We have a good working relationship with them and there’s an agreement to share information both ways with them. As is, the policing body, which would be the police or RCMP, they would be the ones who would determine criminal charges being laid or not. We don’t have that authority. We’re not the policing authority. That would be the police or RCMP that would determine that there has been criminal activity and charges would be laid.
There is close consultation between our staff and the police. The police do call us right away on any workplace accidents. If there are charges going to be laid they do inform us as well.
MS. MARTIN: Just to be clear, so I have it in my head, if John Doe fell off a roof and died, I would think the first people that would be called would be the police and an ambulance probably, from a workplace point of view. Is it then at that point that OH&S, or the department for which you look after, would be called in conjunction with or separate to?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The police would call us and notify us and we would immediately have an inspector on the scene.
MS. MARTIN: Recently, there has been much discussion about Donkin mine and whether it’s safe or not - whether it should be unionized or not. Of course, I have my own opinion on that. However, recently, there were 29 violations registered in the mine between February and June. The province issued a stop-work order. From what I understand, that was lifted the very next day. Donkin mine is always aware of when there’s going to be an inspection. How comfortable does your department feel that Donkin mine has rectified those 29 safety concerns and that going forward they’re providing a safe workplace for their workers?
MR. KOUSOULIS: I actually had the opportunity when I was in Sydney last month to drop by our Occupational Health and Safety Branch and view the work area of Donkin mine. I urge you to visit it. It’s actually quite extensive, and they have a lot of information there. Because safety is of the utmost importance, we have three full-time staff on the Donkin mine file. One of them is an inspector, and then we have a mine engineer as well as a junior engineer. We also have two support staff for them.
The 29 safety concerns, if you look at it on face value, could be alarming. But what’s more important to us is the responsiveness from the employer. This is a start-up situation for the Donkin mine, and they’re in Nova Scotia, where they might not be used to all our safety regulations, depending on where they’re used to operating their mines. The key to us is, have they responded? The answer is yes, they have been responding. Any time there is something that we see as a safety violation, they’ve responded and rectified it.
In terms of the assumption that we only do announced visits, I can tell you that’s not accurate. The staff do unannounced visits. Announced visits would be if we were looking at administrative type of work or processes, but anytime we want to look at the safety in the mine or underground, it’s unannounced visits. We go there, and they have no prior indication that we are coming.
In terms of safety, that is always going to be of the utmost importance in the mine and going forward. The way the department works and our occupational health and safety - this is feedback I received here in Halifax. We’re working collaboratively with the employers. We’re not trying to be punitive or slap their hands. We’re trying to get them to look at us as a partner.
An individual one day actually gave me information in terms of the department. He said, I have a construction job site building a high-rise building, and one day, my foreman turned and said, I’m not sure about this - I’m going to call the Department of Labour and Advanced Education. The owner looked at his foreman and he goes, why would you call them - like he was startled - they’re going to want to come here and shut us down. He said, no, we have a good working relationship with them - we have been going back and forth. He paid the compliment that our staff isn’t there to be punitive, that our staff is there to actually find problems before they happen.
We don’t want to be coming on to a job site where there was a workplace accident. Then we’re being reactive. We’re trying to be more proactive and ensure that those workplace accidents don’t happen, because we want our workers to be safe.
MS. MARTIN: Can the minister give me a number as to the number of spot checks or investigations or checkups that have happened at Donkin mine?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The mine went operational in February 2017. Since then there have been 20 inspections. The frequency of any safety concerns has been dropping but it is a large-scale industrial operation. The goal of the department is to see the most obscure chance of anything that could happen and inform the mine and work to mitigate that risk.
The trend that we have been seeing, though, is constant improvement. The company has been working closely with the department to get to constant improvement. But with all large-scale industrial job sites such as this one, you’re never going to get to zero, you’re always going to be constantly improving, constantly looking at what could be out of place. You might have a period of time that there’s no safety concerns but then something creeps up, so the job is to always have safety on the forefront of your mind, to always be working together, and to always have that goal of making the environment as safe as possible. I can say with much confidence, from the feedback from my staff, that the operators of Donkin mine want to operate a safe environment for their workers.
MS. MARTIN: I have to commend the workers in one of your departments with Conciliation and Mediation Services. I’ve worked with them many times and have come to resolutions in many labour disputes, as well as through education that they’ve provided when I’ve asked for them to come into the workplace and provide some education. In my mind, that’s a valuable service that you offer to workplaces in Nova Scotia.
I guess my question from that is, is it not worth investing more money or moving money around, so that collective agreements can be bargained freely and fairly and less stalemates that would result in conciliation services?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Excellent suggestion. I was just informed by my staff that it’s something they have been working towards but they haven’t presented it to me yet. It’s in the very early stages, more of a concept, but it’s pretty much like the concept you’re talking about. You are correct, up until now we provide conciliation when we’re asked to come in, from one of the two parties. What the staff has been working on is actually allocating some of the funds so that maybe we can get out there and help organizations, employers, and employee groups actually negotiate more effectively and more harmoniously.
It is something that is in the works and I look forward to the department bringing it forward to me. I think it’s a great idea.
MS. MARTIN: I’d like to talk about the WCB. Does the department or the minister believe that this is a program that should be provided or available to all Nova Scotians?
MR. KOUSOULIS: I’m not sure if you’re referring to municipalities that opt in or opt out of the program. Currently all employers are in the program, but there are some municipalities that have the ability to opt out. Employers don’t, private companies don’t, so they’re put into the program. We would like to have all employees in the province in the program and we’d like to have as large a pool as we could because with a larger pool, it lowers the cost of insurance. So, that is our ultimate goal.
As I indicated last week in regard to municipal partners who might want to be part of Workers’ Compensation, I know the board is there and ready to talk to them whenever the opportunity arises, so it is of great interest to them.
MS. MARTIN: Does the minister and/or the department have any concerns about the way it operates? Are you envisioning any changes to the program? I understand there were recommendations that came about maybe 15-ish years ago and that none of them have ever been implemented. Can you elaborate as to why the government would pay for such a service to be performed and then not be enacted on?
MR. KOUSOULIS: I believe the member is referring to the Dorsey report perhaps? The major overarching recommendation that came out of the Dorsey report was for governments to kind of back off the Workers’ Compensation Board because successively what had happened is governments were getting too involved in the day-to-day operations, artificially holding rates down. This resulted back in 1993 - the unfunded liability was 73 per cent of the fund, so in 1993 the WCB had only 27 per cent of the money they needed to pay all its workers.
Past governments - the NDP Government, the previous Progressive Conservative Government - since 2003, all governments have backed off and allowed the board to really run the WCB. The board is actually well represented by union representatives and business representatives, so there’s a balance there.
I can say that the WCB has worked very well and brought that unfunded liability from 27 per cent in 1993 up to 84 per cent today. That doesn’t mean the floodgates are going to open or that rates are going to drop overnight. I personally would like to see rates go down because that makes our province a lot more competitive to attract jobs here.
The WCB informed me that in order for rates to go down they’d probably have to get to 120 per cent funded, because even if they reach 100 per cent funded, one small downturn in the stock market, one market correction could really wipe that out. Their goal is to get above the 100 per cent and then they can start having the conversation in terms of rates. That’s many years ahead, from what I would envision, so I don’t see us having that conversation in any short time.
The approach I’ve taken and my government is, we want to be hands-off and let the board really oversee the WCB. We don’t want to have that government interference and make decisions that will harm the agency that is there to support our workers when they are injured in the future.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Probably a couple of seconds left, at most.
MS. MARTIN: Of course, I have a few other things but I’d welcome the opportunity to have a conversation with you at another time, just about some general concerns and questions.
MR. KOUSOULIS: Definitely, no problem.
MS. MARTIN: Thanks so much.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: We will now revert to the PC caucus. Mr. Orrell.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you, Madam Chairman. I’m going to shift gears a little bit from where we were at before. I may come back to some later but there’s a few budget-type items I want to discuss first and then see where time goes from there.
You said there’s $1.7 million going to be added to the Graduate to Opportunity program. How many more people is this going to allow us to get into their first job and how many more is that going to be, compared to what was done in the first year of the program?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The extra funding was not only to help the program grow to be available to more individuals and organizations hiring our youth, but it also was grown to help under-represented groups, people with disabilities, visible minorities, as well.
What we do have as information here is that by the end of August the Graduate to Opportunity program had received 700 applications and 600 of the positions had been approved. Out of the 600 approvals, 400 have been filled. We’re finding the jobs are of a higher pay in nature so these are new graduates coming out of university and the average job is paying $40,000 a year. I believe the program has a minimum requirement of $30,000 or $32,000, if memory serves me correctly, of the minimum salary that has to be offered.
The program, I always tell employers all about it because I think it’s a great program and it helps our youth. It covers the cost of the youth, 25 per cent of their salary in the first year, 12.5 per cent in the second year. I can say that my goal will be that the more uptake there is on this program, the more I will be pushing my government to fund it. Up until today I’ve seen no hesitation to fund this program. That’s also evident in the Innovate to Opportunity program, which is a similar program, targeted to research at the master’s and Ph.D. level. I’m very excited about that program because those individuals, without work experience, have a harder time entering the job market and it could give one of our organizations a chance to take a chance on hiring someone to do work that might not have an immediate payoff, it might be more of a longer-term investment.
MR. ORRELL: So, 600 were approved; 400 were filled. The other 200, are they in the process of being filled or are they applications that were denied, or is there a reason that they are not filled yet? Of those 700 applications, that’s the first year or the first year and a half? The other $1.7 million, is that going to bump that up to 1,400, is there a desire to have that happen. Is it going to improve the subsidy that’s given or is the subsidy going to stay the same?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The member is correct: there have been 600 approvals; 400 have been filled. The 200, many would be waiting to be filled or the employer has put in an application, they just haven’t gone through the process of hiring. We would hope and expect that those would be filled but there would be a small subset of employees who started a job but they might have - their employment might have been terminated after a short amount of time, either by themselves or by the employer. They might have moved out of province or moved to another job, so there is a small part where somebody might have started under the program but they only went a month or two in.
I can say that in terms of anyone starting the program, the money is still there and available for the expansion of the program. There are no clawbacks or there’s no money that will be allocated elsewhere.
Our goal is to move this program up to 1,200 youth per year and provide all the funding for that. We’re in the early stages of ramping up with this, and I hope to see it up to the 1,200 very soon.
MR. ORRELL: The 200 that aren’t filled, you say some of them would be people who were terminated in the program. After the first year, how many people who started were still in the same job at the end - percentage-wise or number-wise, if you have that number?
MR. KOUSOULIS: We have a small sample size because the program just started in 2015 but so far, out of the members who started a job, 84 per cent of them are still employed after the one year and remain employed. Our hope is that the whole point of this program was to give individuals the work experience they need up-front.
I mentioned earlier that it’s very hard to get a job when you don’t have work experience and I’m sure everyone, all the members here, realize that the first job they ever had was probably the most difficult but it opened the door to their next job. I would say that even within these positions, as the individual gets a few years of work experience, they might move on to another organization or another job, move up the corporate ladder per se, but I’m very pleased that 84 per cent of them are still employed after a year and still going strong.
MR. ORRELL: The 16 per cent who are employed could be - I shouldn’t say “employed” - if they are still employed, that’s great. If they are not employed, is there a reason why they left the program? Is it a personal reason? Is it a reason that the job wasn’t the two years that they thought they were going to have? Is there a requirement of the employer to guarantee that that’s a two-year job, unless it’s terminated by the program deliverer, the employee, or if there’s some outstanding circumstance?
Not everybody is going to stay at every job, we understand that, but if we’re training people to be in these jobs and then after a year or two they leave and move out of the province, then that money has been well-spent on the person but not necessarily a great benefit for the province. Is there any indication that there’s a guarantee or an implied guarantee that that person stays within the province at least, and hopefully in the same job that they started in?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The money is paid after the work has been completed so there’s no situation where an employer would collect any monies before they paid the employees. The subsidized amount has been worked for and earned by the employee when we move the funds to the employer to pay them.
In terms of why an employee might not have work, exactly as the member stated, there could be an exceptional circumstance where the employee wasn’t performing; it could be that the employee wasn’t satisfied, they left on their own. But as in every job out there, the employee might have their reason for leaving or the employer might have their reason for termination, and that’s where the 16 per cent would fall under.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you, it’s well appreciated. There’s also $1.7 million in this budget to hire people with a Ph.D. and master’s in the Innovate to Opportunity program. Can I get a breakdown of the numbers that would be - this is a new program; the Graduate to Opportunity program is - not an old program - an established program now. You’re putting $1.7 million into that, and you’re going to put $1.7 million into the Ph.D. and master’s. Would that reflect a higher wage or more numbers to start?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Just for clarification, the Graduate to Opportunity would have started with a small budget but now that we’re in year three of it, its budget is at $4.887 million. The Innovate fund is in it’s first year. We’re just starting the program, so we haven’t had the uptake on it because it’s a new program that was just announced three months ago. But we are putting $1.7 million into the fund.
At that master’s level and Ph.D. level, it’s targeting a different type of employment, it’s targeting individuals who do research. What this would be supporting would be our start-up community, our research community. What it would do is, it would perhaps be a science-based organization that might not have had the funding to hire a Ph.D. student because they tend to have more of a higher income. With many more years of schooling, they tend to have a higher skill set as well, and generally they might be doing research in an area where the return isn’t on day one, or there might never be a return. That is why this program is geared a little differently. Instead of a two-year subsidy, it is stretched over a three-year subsidy to the organization to pass through to the individual.
Again, we’re dealing with a much smaller amount of individuals here. This will not grow to the point of what the Graduate to Opportunity is because the Graduate to Opportunity is targeting any new graduate coming out or new college graduate and the minimum salary of $30,000 to $32,000 that I mentioned earlier. That’s a much broader umbrella.
We also have a lot more undergraduates than we do Ph.D.- and master’s-level graduates, so I see the Innovate to Opportunity filling a gap that helps all the great research we have happening here, especially in the ocean technology sector.
We’re all aware of the OFI fund, the Ocean Frontier Institute, which is an over $200 million fund, which is really going to create a lot of research jobs and spinoffs from that. Our hope is that those spinoffs and those jobs foster more research, more innovation. This is just a small way that we can help support hiring some of these new students who might not have a lot of research experience but also help them get that research experience.
MR. ORRELL: It’s expected they are going to earn more money because they are a Ph.D. graduate student. If that budget is not spent, what will happen to the remaining money? Will it go into paying more salaries for the people who are there or will it be carried over and added to next year’s budget to try to increase that? If the bodies are not there to use that money, what’s going to happen to that remaining money?
MR. KOUSOULIS: We actually faced a similar situation with Graduate to Opportunity where, in the first year, as there was an uptake, there’s a ramp-up where applications are coming in, and by the time they’re processed, by the time an individual starts, we could be into another budget year and the money is underspent. What we’ve done is we’ve never scaled back the budget on Graduate to Opportunity and I anticipate the same thing will happen in Innovate to Opportunity. What we did in Graduate to Opportunity is, when we found there were unspent funds, we directed the department to actually use that funding to advertise more and get the program out there.
At the time, the department started a large advertising campaign and they did see quite a big bump in the amount of applications coming in from that. It’s like any other program. The more people find out about it and use it, it will grow, I believe, organically because we’ve now seen law firms coming on board, and once a few of them find out about the program and start utilizing it, then you’ll see other ones doing the same thing because it’s within that community. The same thing is happening amongst other sectors in Nova Scotia. As they’re using the program, they’re sharing the information.
The other part that’s interesting to note is if an organization is growing, they can use the program more than once until they hit the threshold of the 100 employees. But what we did is we don’t allow an organization to lay off in a position that they’ve been funded, only to come back through the back door and fill that position and get funded again. There has to be a net increase of jobs in order for us to fund a position, but there’s also the opportunity for organizations to fund more than one position if they’re growing their organization at a rapid rate.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you for that. We’re now halfway or over halfway through a budget year, this $1.7 million was projected to be the budget for the year. Obviously, we’re not going to spend all that money, so that money is going to go into advertising for the program. That could be a substantial amount of money that could be used in one of the other programs to try to boost that up so I’m just wondering, because of the timing of this year - we’re going to be back into budget talks again probably in late March and doing this all over again - that unspent money, will it be shown as a surplus?
Technically, some of the budget items we’re seeing in the whole budget, we could really have a surplus this year but only because most of it has been spent. Most of the departments have cut back on their spending. I know the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal only spent so much money because they didn’t have it, so they’re going to be spending the rest for snowstorms and stuff. But in this type of program, that money would be sitting there if it’s not used. So, will it be used, as you say, on advertising, or will it be shown as moving forward into next year’s program? Hopefully, with some advertising, we’ll be able to fill those programs and make sure those people are taking advantage of that.
MR. KOUSOULIS: What our goal would be is it would be to ramp up and have all the money spent. Any instance that we might not have a full spend, we would not be clawing the budget back, the budget down going forward. As with Graduate to Opportunity, the budget has increased every year and what we also have been doing is reaching out to our partners to help advertise these programs. We have advertised the programs through the Halifax Chamber of Commerce as well as the Cape Breton Partnership. The goal would be to move it forward.
In terms of any money that might not be spent, we could allocate it from Innovate to Opportunity, to Graduate to Opportunity. My hope will be that we exceed both budgets and I need to go to Treasury and ask for more funding on these. Going forward, I don’t see any reductions in the amount of funding, only increases.
MR. ORRELL: That’s good, thanks. In the budget, it’s showing that there’s $2 million extra for your START program for under-represented groups in rural Nova Scotia. I guess my first question is, I assume, and maybe I’m wrong and please correct me if I am, that the Nova Scotia Works program already administers employment services for under-represented groups in rural Nova Scotia now.
Is this $2 million more going to target just that or is it going to be added to their budget? My understanding with the merger from the 51 down to 31 was, every organization would provide services for people with disabilities and under-represented individuals. This is kind of targeting under-represented individuals again, so would that indicate that those groups, when they merge now, weren’t providing enough service to the people in under-represented groups? Or is it new money because there were more people or they had to spend more money on the under-represented groups? Can you explain that to me, please?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The Apprenticeship START program, the $2 million that was allocated, is funding separate from the other program that you were referencing there. What it is targeting is, within the Apprenticeship START program, it is targeting not only under-represented groups, visible minorities, but it is also targeting apprentices in rural Nova Scotia.
I can comment on the under-represented groups. We found in terms of the apprenticeship programs that the amount of under-represented groups was much lower than the general population, so we put a concerted effort into targeting that group, to give them opportunities in apprenticeship programs. In the rural area, we were trying to support rural Nova Scotia and give apprentices job opportunities there.
MR. ORRELL: This money is going to go to rural Nova Scotia, it’s not going to be based out of - so how is that going to be broken down amongst the agencies in rural Nova Scotia? Is it going to be equal to all of them or is it going to be more to one and more to the other, depending on the - we have a lot of under-represented groups in Cape Breton and I know there’s a lot of under-represented groups in other areas as well. I know Cape Breton better so I ask that because there are more under-represented people in Cape Breton, so would they get a bigger share of the funding, I guess is the question?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The funding actually goes through the employer who provides the apprenticeship opportunity. I do have a breakdown in terms of the regions within rural Scotia: 15.5 per cent of the funding went to Cape Breton; 26.5 per cent went to the central region; the northeast region of Guysborough received 2.7 per cent; northern region, 22.8 per cent; and southern region, 32.8 per cent.
Again, the funding doesn’t go to the agencies; it goes to the employer who is providing that apprenticeship opportunity.
MR. ORRELL: It says also that there’s $1.8 million - you talked in your opening statement - to increase employment supports for youth at risk. Can you explain to me how that is going to be distributed and what you classify as a youth at risk, as far as employment services go?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The funding comes through us but that program is administered through the Department of Community Services. The funding does come through us but we don’t have anything to do with that program.
For further clarification, the funding is for children of income-assistance clients.
MR. ORRELL: I guess I don’t understand. You provide the funding to Community Services to give to families of people on income assistance to increase employment of their children - is that what you’re saying? You have no control over that funding, how it gets spent. Where are the checks and balances going to be on that money to make sure that that is used for the purpose that it is intended for?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Madam Chairman, for clarification, can we get where that is from, where it is being read from?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Orrell, a point of clarification, what page is that?
MR. ORRELL: I’ll have to find that. I’ll ask another question and then I’ll go back. I’ll find that while you are . . .
MR. KOUSOULIS: I believe that program - if it’s the increase to employment support services that was under youth and jobs, I would be mistaken from earlier. It’s completely under DCS funding, it doesn’t flow through us. I was speaking as to the other money that flows through us which comes through the federal government, under the LMDA and then we need to allocate it to DCS. But the money for that would be completely audited, as per requirements of the federal government, and there’s no risk of anything obscure happening with it.
MR. ORRELL: That money is not coming from Labour and Advanced Education for that youth-at-risk program? I thought in your opening statement you said you were providing more money for youth at risk and I thought that I heard that. Now, I could be wrong. I usually hear things a lot of times that don’t make a lot of sense to me, but that’s fine.
We’ll move on. Your people going back to NSCC to work on their Red Seal, you’re going to give them up to $900 per year to improve their training - to pay for the costs of their next block in their employment. You said you were going to put $1.3 million into that program, up to $900 a person. Later on in this pamphlet it says that approximately 2,200 apprentices receive training each year and it could be up to 2,200 who can access that - 2,200 people at $900 a year works out to be about $1.9 million. You’re allowing $1.3 million. Where’s the rest of that money going to come from?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The $900 that was referenced was the maximum amount. Every apprenticeship program has a different amount of fee that they pay. They also have a different timeline that they’re back at the community college. Some can be as short as a couple of weeks. Some can be as long as six weeks, but there’s a range in terms of the fees under each apprenticeship program that range between $300 and $900. In terms of the $1.3 million, it still provides no tuition to any of our apprentices into the community colleges and the $1.3 million is enough to cover all the fees that were collected in the past. If there’s an uptake on apprentices, the $1.3 million would be an increase. In terms of policy, there’s no more tuition on apprenticeship programs at NSCC.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you. The way it reads is everybody is getting $900 per year, up to 2,200 people. It’s kind of misleading when you say that in a Budget Address or when you print that out. If you had everybody who went there and it was a $900 program, you’d be out $0.5 million, and it’s misleading when you see that because people are coming to me to say that this is great.
My other question is you’re going to give these people who are working and working toward their Red Seal - which is great, don’t get me wrong when I say this - but they’re going to take some time off to take their next block and we’re going to pay for their tuition. We just had the biggest increase in tuition in universities in the last number of years that students are going to have to pay. They’ve also had increases in student fees. What is the department going to do to try to level that out? It almost seems like you’re picking favourites of university students; now it’s shifted over towards apprenticeship training.
What are we going to do to make sure that we can level that out so that increases in university and increases and/or no increases in NSCC or apprenticeship training is levelled out so that there doesn’t seem to be any favourites? What the students are paying in university, it seems like it’s what they’re giving out in the apprenticeship program and some kids just can’t afford that increase and they’re not going to school because of it.
MR. KOUSOULIS: In terms of this budget, if you take a look at the supports we’re providing university students and if you take a look at increase in funding of the universities, in my opening statement, I spoke about $27-plus million being provided. One of the key supports for university students, it’s all about accessibility and giving a chance to the student who might not have a chance to go to university or college, so we’re really beefing up our student assistance programs. We have one of the strongest in the country right now, as we’re all aware, when we came to government a few years ago.
We took the interest off student loans but we’ve also increased the funding of student loans where student loans in this budget go up to $6,800 a year in funding. What we’ve also done in this year’s budget is increase the forgiveness amount upon graduation up to five years. As well, on top of that, every Nova Scotian who is going to university gets an automatic bursary off their tuition of $1,283. When you add up all those factors, you’re actually looking at students on student assistance being able to receive $40,000-plus worth of student funding and never repay a red cent of it.
My goal is to make university as accessible to everybody in the province as we can to allow individuals from marginalized backgrounds or from more of a lower economic ability to have a chance to go to university. I truly feel that university and college education can break the cycle of poverty and I’m very excited that we’re providing, upon graduation, free forgiveness of the bursary.
I do want to elaborate on why that is there. When our students receive their $6,800 of student assistance up front, 40 per cent of it will be in a bursary format and the other 60 per cent will be carried at the interest-free loan. The incentive that we have of full loan forgiveness upon graduation is because that is the goal. There was a lot of feedback from universities that students would come, spend a year or two, but even more disturbing, almost finish their degree, with the exception of a few credits, and then not complete their degree.
We can all agree that getting half a university education, although you will gain an education, our goal should be for completion of the university degree. The incentive there is, on your Nova Scotia student loan, full forgiveness, up to five years of student loan, upon graduation. I will add that for individuals with disabilities, it is up to 10 years that we will have full loan forgiveness as well.
MR. ORRELL: That’s great that it’s loan forgiveness but with the raise in tuition this year, some people can’t actually afford to pay that stuff up front and get the student loan and recoup it later.
It was very interesting, you just said that every Nova Scotian student who goes to university gets - I think you said - $1,200 up front. Every Nova Scotian student, is that just university in Nova Scotia or is that university wherever they go? I know there are a lot of kids who go outside of the province and the country to go to school. They are not eligible for that money.
I know we’ve had the conversation with the previous minister about kids coming back from being foreign-trained in other areas that the government hasn’t paid a nickel for but we get that benefit from them. If that’s every Nova Scotia student, I’d like the application, if I could, because my daughter is away and I’d love to get that up-front money for her because it’s costing us a clear-cut fortune. Is that for every student who goes to university somewhere in Canada or is it every student who goes to university?
MR. KOUSOULIS: I’m pretty sure that if your daughter was eligible for it, that you would have already had the bursary. What I can say is that the bursary goes directly to the university and it’s available only for our Nova Scotia universities. It’s only eligible for a Nova Scotia student attending a Nova Scotia university, so unfortunately for your daughter’s situation where she is out of province, we’re only providing that subsidy to our Nova Scotia institutions.
MR. ORRELL: Their student loans are the same idea, they get a student loan but they can’t get into certain programs here. It’s no incentive to bring them back if that’s the case. I know there are incentives involved but anyway, that’s good, I’ll move on from there.
I did ask the question in the Legislature about Acadia and CBU. In 2008, there were some funding formula changes that resulted in both of those universities getting some unfair funding. They were told, since I’ve been elected, that no more handouts will be given, no more bailouts will be given, and to live within your means. CBU did that, they made the hard choices: they offered some voluntary retirements, they cut back on some programs, they cut back on some professors, and they tried to live within their means. Acadia University didn’t do that, but got extra funding.
Can you explain to me why that happened? I know this year that CBU is getting $1 million but Acadia is getting $3.5 million - can you explain to me why the discrepancy? Could you guarantee to me that that discrepancy will be filled, that the gap between the two will be filled, that CBU will be brought more in line with the other universities in the province?
MR. KOUSOULIS: In terms of a gap or favouritism, every university is judged on its own merit so there’s no playing favourites of one over the other, or if one university gets something we’re not going to - it’s not an instance where we turn to another university and give it something.
Acadia and CBU are much different universities. What I can mention is you are correct, the funding formula affected CBU by approximately $3.5 million in reduction, year over year, which was back in 2008, and Acadia was affected by about $6.5 million at the same time.
I won’t say the funding formula was wrong because the funding formula at the time looked at what enrolment was. It took a three-year average, and with the three-year average it put a dollar amount on per student and whether it was an undergraduate program or a graduate program. That’s how the formula allocated the base funding to each university.
In 2008, every university had an increase, except for CBU and Acadia. Primarily the reason for Acadia’s decrease and CBU’s is their enrolment had been dropping. One of the things that happened at Acadia is their enrolment bounced back from that funding formula, where it has increased to date by 31 per cent. If you actually look at CBU’s enrolment from the funding formula until today, it has gone down 17 per cent.
Having said that, although some costs might decrease because of incrementally having less or more students, we recognize that universities, whether they go from the amount of students they have down to one, they still have all the staff to pay for, the faculty, the buildings. We also realize that incrementally, as the students increase by 100 or 200, they don’t have to go out and hire more professors or build a new building. Having this knowledge of their cost structure led us to our current strategy with funding, where we’re not doing it on a per-student basis, we’re doing it on an individual basis per university and looking at what their requirements are.
I can say I directed staff in the upcoming MOU which is currently being negotiated. I don’t want to see any universities dropped out, because even if they have a drop in their enrolment, they still have the same costs. If you start dropping their funding based on their enrolment figures, CBU would be down 17 per cent and they couldn’t maintain that because CBU still has the same buildings, they have the same faculty.
At the same time as universities are growing, a great example being Dalhousie, we’re not going to start bumping up their funding because they would be pulling the resources away from the other universities. We’re trying to give the universities stability currently and into the future, where they can actually do some long-term planning and not worry about if the government is going to cut money from me this year or next year.
Upon being elected, the Premier met with all the university presidents and he said, I want you to know that we are committed to a 1 per cent a year increase in funding. This is at a time when every department took a 1 per cent decrease in funding. He said, I want you to be able to go out and do multi-year planning, in terms of moving forward. So that has been our approach with universities.
In terms of Acadia, one thing I will say is that Acadia’s financial situation was not as strong as CBU’s. CBU had a pretty strong - they are actually pretty well off financially, even after the decrease in the funding formula. CBU did approach the department and what they did ask us for was an increase in funding - this came to the previous minister - which was going to equate to approximately $4 million over a five-year period. We looked at that and looked at their budgets, and what we decided was to grant them their request that they had to us but to increase it a little bit, to the $1 million, which is what they receive in this budget going forward.
In terms of Acadia, we did a much deeper dive with them and we looked at all their excess assets which they disposed of; we looked at what steps they took with faculty which no other university in this province took. One thing Acadia negotiated with their faculty was an increase of one week of vacation for every employee during the Christmas holidays. This resulted in the 2 per cent reduction of what they pay their employees across the board. Acadia also negotiated with the union to allow having less tenured professors, which was embedded in the contract. Acadia was able to really manage their finances moving forward.
After they had taken all the steps that they could, they ended up having a $3.5 million shortfall, which is the amount that they had been receiving since 2011, I believe, as a top-up. What we did is, as that funding was provided every year, we embedded it into the base funding because we saw no opportunity that Acadia was going to be going on a go- forward basis without that $3.5 million in their base funding.
At the same time, we looked at the other university which was negatively affected by the 2008 MOU, which was CBU. We looked at their request and we actually granted them a bit higher than what their request was in terms of $1 million of extra funding. I had a chance last month to visit CBU, meet with members of their board and with the president as well, and what I indicated to them - and this is something they’re working towards - is we have challenges, and outside of the base funding of the MOU, you can help us meet these challenges and there’s funding available as we’re meeting these challenges.
I’ll give you a prime example with CBU. In the last four years they’ve received $8.7 million to fund the nursing program. That isn’t in the base funding that we’re talking about of where they received the extra million; that is over and above. In terms of where the level of funding is for all the universities in the province, I’m quite comfortable with the level it’s at. I feel they’re all on, I won’t say a perfect financial foundation, but they’re on a strong financial foundation and they all have the ability to manage their finances and manage their future. It’s all under their control and their ability.
MR. ORRELL: With all due respect, CBU went out and they courted Saudi Arabia students, they courted international students which raised up their revenues coming in. Since then, Saudi Arabia students have been just completing their program - no new students come in, loss of revenue. They did the heavy lifting, cut back on other things, closed the rink, closed a few other things that they had to do to get to that funding stage. Now they’re at a situation where the funding they had before is about a third of what - they could use a third more of what they have now or two-thirds more of what they have now. That’s where I was going with that.
Over the last number of years, Acadia University got $3.5 million or $4 million a year - I don’t know the exact numbers. I believe my colleague, the member for Pictou East does have those numbers, so I’ll let him continue the line of questioning, if that’s okay.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Houston.
MR. TIM HOUSTON: Minister, do you happen to have the operating grants and the enrolment figures from 2008 to hand? I just want to try to walk through some - because there are a lot of references of what the funding formula used to be like and how it changed and stuff. What was the enrolment for Saint Mary’s University in 2008-09?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Saint Mary’s enrolment was 7,267 students in 2008, Acadia was 3,493 students, and CBU was 3,558 students.
MR. HOUSTON: Do you have the operating grants information for that year as well? I’m just trying to figure out - like, a very simplistic calculation of operating grant per student in that year, what it might have looked like.
MR. KOUSOULIS: Acadia’s operating grant was $27.9 million, CBU was $18.76 million, and Saint Mary’s was $31.7 million.
MR. HOUSTON: And St. F.X. was $26 million. If I do a rough calculation, just a simplistic operating grant divided by full-time students, the equivalence of full-time students, what would those numbers show me? They would show me that Acadia had the highest per-student funding on an operating grant basis.
MR. KOUSOULIS: The MOU of 2008, the way it allocated funding was per student, per program. If one university is heavily weighted toward a three-year arts program, the per-student funding could be X amount. But if another university was more heavily weighted towards sciences, where you have extra costs in terms of labs and other equipment, then it could be X plus a percentage higher.
In terms of the way the formula was allocated, looking at per-student funding would be skewing the numbers because it doesn’t paint the story of whether it’s an arts student, a science student, an engineering student, or a medical student. The formula, when it was brought in by the previous Progressive Conservative Government, allocated an amount of funding per program, per student. It would be across all faculties in a university. I will also add that all the universities agreed to the funding formula and how it would break down.
Could you say one university received more than another? No. Acadia and CBU receive the same money for an undergraduate student taking arts as they would for one taking commerce, one taking sciences, or a master’s student. But in terms of the mix of students at a university, that would be different, and that would be why you would see a different amount of funding per university.
MR. HOUSTON: Fair enough. So those are the reasons why. But Acadia had the highest per student, and you say there’s maybe some justification for that. The question was simply that Acadia was getting the most funding per student. Maybe they had more students in sciences, I guess a person might say, but they were getting the most per student. Correct?
MR. KOUSOULIS: No. Every university gets the same per student, per faculty. If you start looking at the amount of funding for a medical student versus an undergrad student, it would really skew the numbers quite a bit. The funding formula of the day was per student, per faculty. It was the same for all universities across the board.
MR. HOUSTON: But I think the argument is that certain universities were disadvantaged, and you don’t want their funding to go down because the buildings are still there and such and such. I’m just trying to take all that noise away and say a university gets an operating grant. They have a certain number of students. How much was it per student? My assessment of that is that Acadia was at the top of the heap at that stage. I don’t hear you disputing that assessment. I just hear maybe some rationale as to why that is. Is that the case?
MR. KOUSOULIS: I’m explaining what the funding formula was per student. It predates myself, and it predates my government. I’m not sure how they came up with the funding formula in terms of what dollar value we put per program, per university. I just know that the funding formula was allocated as per student funding, and there was an amount of what the value of a faculty was. That’s how it was allocated.
In terms of the mixture per university, and this goes back to my earlier comment, every university is different and unique in its own circumstance. In terms of comparing one to another, they don’t offer the same programs. They don’t have the same level of individuals there. One university could be more to the graduate level, and one could be more to the undergraduate level. That affects the funding that’s provided.
MR. HOUSTON: I’ll come back to that. You mentioned that all the universities agreed to the MOU. I’m sure they did. What was the format of that agreement? Was it a majority vote at the table, or was it individual? Did everyone actually agree, or did the majority agree?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Everyone agreed to the funding formula. All the presidents agreed to what it was. The sign-off of it happens by the Council of Nova Scotia University Presidents, which represents all the presidents of all the universities.
MR. HOUSTON: Thank you for that. In May 2012, which would predate your government obviously, Housing Nova Scotia advanced $2.7 million to Acadia for building residences, renovation of residences, whatever the case might have been. That loan was supported by your department. Has that loan been repaid? It was a five-year loan, to my knowledge.
MR. KOUSOULIS: Yes, that was the loan to renovate Cutten House, I believe is how it’s pronounced, and that was repaid.
MR. HOUSTON: Are you aware of any other similar loans advanced to any other universities for residences?
MR. KOUSOULIS: No, I am not.
MR. HOUSTON: That loan has been repaid, thank you. We know the Acadia situation, now we know the CBU situation - has any other university come and said they were disadvantaged by the MOU and they want a few more dollars as well?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Pretty much every one of them - every university president, I’d say the majority of them, because there’s still two universities that I haven’t visited on campus. All of them have asked for more funding. What I’ve indicated to them is that we’re currently in negotiations for the new MOU. We actually have a university retreat at the end of this month where all the university presidents and members of our department will get together and talk about the future of that MOU.
I indicated to the university presidents there would be no cuts to their funding. I think that’s very important for their multi-year program. I also indicated that I would be trying to get increases and I wanted to address a couple areas, one of them being the universities have liability in terms of their maintenance and their capital infrastructure. In the next MOU, I want to really try to tackle a little bit of that.
MR. HOUSTON: We know that CBU was surprised to learn that Acadia had been receiving additional money, presumably everyone was surprised to learn that. Did all the other universities express some surprise that Acadia had been receiving extra funding - they were all surprised?
MR. KOUSOULIS: From my understanding - and this predates myself - every university president would have known that Acadia was receiving that $3.5 million a year of extra funding, but I’m getting this from third-hand knowledge from previous ministers that the other universities were aware of it.
MR. HOUSTON: Did any other universities have their SOFI loans written off?
MR. KOUSOULIS: No, they did not. Acadia was the only one that had their SOFI loans written off but Acadia was also the only university that received a SOFI loan that did not actually go to its intended purpose. Their application was around a shortfall they had in operations and that SOFI loan didn’t go to any capital improvements or any improvements that other universities did to reduce their long-term costs. Acadia used that loan specifically and only for operations and even at the time they argued that the loan was not meeting its intended purpose. The past-president, in front of the room of all the other presidents, said that he will never be able to repay that loan off.
MR. HOUSTON: Did the other universities have SOFI loans still outstanding? Or had they been repaid at this stage?
MR. KOUSOULIS: They have all been repaid.
MR. HOUSTON: I think that’s pretty much it for my time, isn’t it?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: A few seconds. Thank you very much. We will now go to the NDP caucus.
If it’s the wish of the caucuses to conclude today - just to let you know - we would need to stop at 9:25 p.m.
MS. LENORE ZANN: Yes, I believe that will be fine. I’m sure the minister would probably like a few minutes to close up, as well.
MR. KOUSOULIS: Yes, five or 10 minutes.
MS. ZANN: That’s fine. I’m going to start somewhere else. I know that our colleague prior was asking some other questions. I’m actually going to ask a few questions about that later on as well.
To start with, in the Fall of 2015, the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, Karen Casey, and the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, Kelly Regan, appointed a task force to recommend ways to more effectively support all students as they transition from public school into college, university, apprenticeship, and the workforce. Can you tell me why there were no representatives from Dalhousie Student Union, the Canadian Federation of Students-Nova Scotia, or community groups serving persons with disabilities on that task force?
MR. KOUSOULIS: This predates me, so I’m not quite familiar with it. The committee was made up of youth and students, teachers and principals, school boards, community colleges, apprenticeship universities, business and industry, and diverse communities. I know that the Cape Breton Partnership was there. African Nova Scotians were represented. Private sector individuals were represented.
Representing students was the executive director of Students Nova Scotia. The deputy informs me that they had a lot of input into the consultation, into the task force.
MS. ZANN: Yes, but Dalhousie Student Union and the Canadian Federation of Students-Nova Scotia were missing from that group. We received a lot of complaints about the fact that they were left out, as they had a lot of things to say that would be extremely helpful moving forward.
One of the purposes of the task force was to identify and eliminate roadblocks, but it seems like there was very limited attention in the report to the increasing cost of post- secondary education. In fact, the 2015-16 Liberal budget lifted the tuition cap, as you would be well aware. Given the policy direction taken by Ontario and New Brunswick, for instance, to make post-secondary education more accessible, are you and your department concerned that Nova Scotia universities will actually become less competitive when there are more affordable options elsewhere in Canada? Is there any work being done to address this?
MR. KOUSOULIS: There are a lot of questions to answer. In terms of the task force, there were 15 different groups represented. It predates my time so I’m not familiar with who the groups were, the process.
In terms of affordability of our universities, when you look across Canada, we punch above our weight in attracting students from other provinces, international students. Our universities, quite a few of them - CBU and Saint Mary’s - I believe are now 30-plus per cent international students.
In terms of what I believe in for affordability of universities, the one thing that we do provide our universities for every student is the $1,283 bursary, and that’s for every Nova Scotia student going to university. We do need to recognize that we as Nova Scotia taxpayers fund these universities. In terms of us funding the universities, that bursary is almost like a return for funding the universities.
For me, I think it’s very important to look at - you had mentioned accessibility. I feel the exact same way. Our universities need to be accessible to those who might not have a chance to go to them. When I say universities, I’ll include colleges in that comment - people who might have a different social or economic background. This is where our student assistance program, which is one of the top in Canada, comes into play.
I mentioned earlier - I’ll repeat as quick as I can so I don’t take up time - I think our student assistance program is excellent. The loans are interest free. Each student in the new budget can receive $6,800 a year. Add onto that the $1,283 bursary, you’re at over $8,000 funding, which covers, I’d say, 90 per cent of the undergraduate programs for the tuition amount.
What’s key with our student assistance is, upon graduation - because that’s always the goal - they’re fully forgiven, and we’ll provide them for five years. I think that’s a key point because the last thing I’d want to see is a student going to university for two years, dropping out, because that closes doors for them. They can’t go to post-graduate. They didn’t complete their degree. I like the program where the incentive is there to finish university because there’s still value in it. Even if you felt you took the wrong program, I would say there’s value in completing what you started or transferring to a different faculty within your university or another university.
The loan forgiveness upon graduation is a good thing. This year it was also increased from four to five years, which is also positive to assist students that might be in a co-op program where it stretches from four to five years.
The other key is, let’s say for some circumstance a student can’t finish university, that loan that they received will be interest free forever, and if they’re not earning a lot of money, they don’t have a repayment schedule. It also helps them in terms of the few students - which I hope would be next to none - not completing university, that they’re not burdened with the interest being so high that they’ll never repay the loan.
In terms of my goal, it’s to help the people who need the help going to university. For people who can afford and parents who can afford in families, I think they can pay the $6,000 to $7,000, which in my view is quite affordable for a lot of families, and I hope they don’t mind paying that to help our other families out.
MS. ZANN: Thank you for that response. From reading different studies over the last few years, it appears that students are having more trouble - having to keep down more jobs to be able to pay for university than their parents did. I know coming from Australia, when my parents went to university it was free. In some countries, they eventually have to pay back any kind of student loans once they get a job and once they’ve actually started to make enough money - $35,000, $40,000 a year - to be able to pay back the student loans.
Have you looked at any of those other kinds of systems? Are you considering changing what’s going on right now and possibly doing something that’s even more progressive here in Nova Scotia in order to keep us ahead of the curve, let’s say, from the rest of Canada?
MR. KOUSOULIS: I know there has been a lot of talk because we’re talking essentially about free tuition. My parents emigrated from Greece. Greece does have free tuition. But what happens is their college system, and many European countries are the same way, is set up like our college system here.
Free tuition doesn’t mean everybody in high school gets to go to university. Free tuition means if we need a thousand doctors, there’s a thousand positions. If we need a thousand engineers, there’s a thousand positions. What happens is it becomes a competition.
I can speak to Greece and other European countries where it is so hyper- competitive that what families do is they hire tutors starting from elementary school all the way through school because those students have to take entrance exams. If they don’t score very high on them for whatever reason, they don’t get the opportunity to go to university in their chosen field. If they do score high, they can essentially pick where they want to go.
What I have seen happen in Greece is that it perpetuates poverty. The wealthy families whose kids might miss the opportunity, they’re just sent to England. The wealthier families get the education for their child by paying for it because they can afford to. A poorer family, such as farmers, essentially turns to them and says, you might as well come and run the olive groves with me as opposed to even trying to go to university. You’re not going to compete because we can’t afford to hire the tutors that you require in order to compete.
I looked at jurisdictions other than Greece as well. There were a couple of studies done in Scotland. Fifteen years ago, Scotland brought in free tuition - and I can share these with the member after estimates. What they found, looking back 15 years later, was that poorer students in Scotland have been left millions of pounds worse off after cuts to government grants which middle-class families have escaped because they’re the ones who benefited from the free tuition. Free tuition in Scotland is the perfect middle-class feel-good policy. It’s superficially universal, but in fact, it benefits the better off most, and it’s funded by pushing the poorer and poorer students further and further into debt. Another study that was done independently of Scotland from leading members comes to essentially the same conclusion - so here’s a country that brought in free tuition, and it had the opposite effect of what it was trying to accomplish.
This is the area where I think our student loan program is very strong, and I would like to - if there’s funding available as opposed to our department looking and saying how we can put the funding into universities to help everybody, which would be rich families and poor families, let’s target it to the poor families and help them.
MS. ZANN: I understand where you’re coming from, and I understand that argument as well.
I guess where I’m coming from is a place where education is free. We believe in free public education. We don’t make rich kids’ parents have to pay for public education. It’s free for everybody. We in the NDP believe in universal education. As social democrats, we believe that it should be continued throughout your entire life.
There are many other countries where it has been a huge success. I look to those, and I think it would be nice if, at some point, we in Canada had a universal post-secondary education system, which of course would need the help of the federal government too. Having as many universities and colleges as we do have in Nova Scotia, I know would be a huge burden on just the Nova Scotia Government. I know that at Memorial University, for instance, in Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s a lot easier for them to make tuition cheaper for kids because they only have one. But I do think that at some point, it’s something that we should strive towards, and I think that we should try to talk to our compatriots in Ottawa and try to get them on board as well.
Hungry for Knowledge and the largest cross-campus study on student food insecurity in Canada found that nearly two in five students surveyed experienced some form of food insecurity right across Canada, and 49.5 per cent of surveyed students reported that they had to sacrifice buying healthy food to pay for expenses such as rent, tuition, and textbooks. I think student poverty would be less of an issue if student debt was actually taken seriously.
I know this government oftentimes speaks of this Loan Forgiveness Program, but under this program students still have to wait at least four years to have their provincial student debt forgiven by the government. That’s four years that students have to live on little to no income. I believe more students would be able to eat if we actually switched from loans to grants, like Newfoundland has done - although, as I said, Newfoundland has only the one - or if loans were forgiven at the beginning of each school year.
Why did the department choose an approach to funding that requires students to take on debt during their studies, rather than looking at models of up-front funding, like those of Ontario and New Brunswick?
MR. KOUSOULIS: The model that’s in this province and I believe the bursary that is available to every Nova Scotia student going to a Nova Scotia university is $1,283. I don’t recall when that was brought in. Regardless of when it was brought in, that bursary is available to every Nova Scotia student going to an institution.
Our student loans do have a forgiveness up front, it’s 40 per cent of the loan, so immediately 40 per cent of it will be forgiven, as a bursary, and the other 60 per cent carried forward. When it is carried forward it is interest-free and it will be forgiven upon graduation.
To me it’s almost the carrot at the end of the road. Ultimately when a student enters a university we want them to graduate. When they enter it, it’s not only the tuition money they’re investing into the university but the university is subsidized by the department, so the cost of tuition is only a fraction of what the total cost is of that student being at university. I think that is where the program that we have kind of strikes the balance of making university accessible, making it affordable, but also, let’s not have the amount of dropouts that we had in the past. That was something the presidents did bring forward that they found students were almost going to university because they didn’t know what else to do. But because of it, they were dropping out after a year or two.
To me, the way the program is now, it gives the incentive to graduate. I mentioned earlier that I think there’s value in graduating, whether you feel during your program that you picked the wrong program, there’s still value because university education helps you, no matter what faculty you’re in, to succeed in life.
By university, I always use it interchangeably with college as well. I don’t want to be gearing people to university, because I have the most respect for our colleges as well.
MS. ZANN: I understand exactly what you mean. I was going to say, as you are probably well aware, the NDP have been pushing for free Nova Scotia Community College tuition. I noticed today actually in the Truro Daily News that the Nova Scotia Community College has started a new program called Make Way. They’ve started this in Truro, the Make Way campaign. They’re aiming to raise about $28 million; they’ve already raised about $21 million, I believe. It’s basically to help students to be able to go to the Nova Scotia Community College no matter what their financial circumstances are. It’s really like - well, it’s not coming from government, obviously, it’s more like just a funding program that they’re trying to get people to help fund.
My question is, why would they need to do that if we could help them pay for the Nova Scotian students? I believe it would only cost about $30 million per year to pay for all Nova Scotian students to go to the NSCC.
MR. KOUSOULIS: That’s a program that is very similar to universities that would be providing scholarships. I think it’s great that the private sector or other donors are giving that money because they see the value in university education.
In terms of our college system, it is very heavily subsidized, more so than our university systems are. As a ballpark in our universities, if you look at what the funding formula provides them, it ends up being approximately 50/50. The amount of monies the universities receive from the province is an equal amount that they raise in tuition.
If you look at the community colleges, we are funding them $138 million, and you are correct, they do collect approximately $30 million in tuition from all their students. To me, that makes it that much more accessible because a lot of programs are a couple thousand dollars. There is merit to say we want to make it free. At the end of the day, as I fall back on the approach that I believe in, I want to make it accessible, and I want to make sure that every student, no matter what their background is, has the opportunity to go to college or university.
Earlier, the member had talked about other countries that have free tuition and the successes they’ve had. I’d be more than happy to look at that, and if you want to share them with me, I always have an open mind. I’m more than happy to have somebody change it with evidence, that there’s a way we can do things better. Even though we are where we are today, we’re constantly evolving. This isn’t where we’re going to be tomorrow or next year. We’re going to have to be somewhere different because the world is changing. The value of an education or the type of education is changing. I’ve seen a major shift from the time I was in university to the value we place on college education.
At the time that I was in university, there wasn’t as much value placed and I think it hurt us as a province because we were not supporting our trades and we had a lack of them. Now that we are supporting them, we have more tradespeople and you do need that balance of tradespeople, college educated, and all aspects of a workforce.
MS. ZANN: I would agree that the province did lose out with the trades when they got rid of a lot of the schools and programs. We had one in Truro, and I believe it was actually a Liberal Government that canned the Industrial Arts school, and the Teachers College in Truro. They got rid of both of those and people still to this day say that they were two of the biggest mistakes they feel the province has ever made, so I’m glad to see that this government is interested in getting back to the trades as we were under the NDP, as you know, with ship building, forestry, community forests - trying to teach people to do silviculture, things like this.
I do remember that under the NDP we had the $50 million a year, which paid for the Graduate Retention Rebate program. That was cut when this government came into power. The reasoning was that the students had said they didn’t like it and it didn’t work and they weren’t happy with it. The students said, actually, that they wanted something to replace it, something that was up front so that their costs would be paid up front. Nothing has actually replaced it yet - that $50 million - which is why I say, if it would only cost $30 million a year to pay for every single student who wants to go to the Nova Scotia Community College, I don’t see why we don’t just do it.
As you said, you want to make it accessible. The Nova Scotia Community College is excellent because they aren’t just turning out people who are having degrees and then having to look for some kind of work - they’re actually training people for jobs that we need now. I would really hope that you would consider our idea, which I’m sure is not just our idea. The thing is, it’s something that the NDP has been stressing that we do believe in and we would like to see happen in Nova Scotia.
Just on the apprenticeship issue, when the decision was made by the department to fund tuition for apprentices returning to the classroom for their technical training, was a gender-based analysis conducted?
MR. KOUSOULIS: We’re just grabbing that information about gender-based analysis.
I will talk about Graduate to Opportunity as a partial replacement to the Graduate Retention Rebate. I remember looking at the Graduate Retention Rebate very closely before our government cut it. It wasn’t meeting its desired intention. The desire was to keep our new graduates here in Nova Scotia. I think that’s what all of us would want.
The program was started under the previous NDP Government, but by the time we came into government a few years in, the program had grown quite large, but it wasn’t meeting its intended outcomes, which were to keep our youth in Nova Scotia. Out- migration had increased, and when we did an analysis of the Graduate Retention Rebate, over 90 per cent of the money went to individuals 30 years old and over.
Those were individuals who already had jobs, such as anyone graduating at a master’s level. B.Ed.s who were hired by the province, who start off with a $50,000-a-year job, were not only getting a job, but they were getting the rebate. I was actually going to start getting the rebate, and I could think of no worse place to put $15,000 to $20,000 than into my pocket as a 40-year-old individual who just finished their master’s. That’s essentially why the program was cut. It was going to any person getting an executive MBA, an MBA who already had a job. It was going to people who were in advanced programs that were attached to the workforce.
If the program had said, let’s look at 25 years and under, it might have had different outcomes or a different amount budgeted to it. In terms of looking at it in its entirety, the budget at that point was in a deficit, so we really didn’t have the luxury of being able to move money around.
If you look at university funding this year, it’s up by $50 million. If you look at the supports we’ve put in since we were elected, not only into our universities but into our accessibility of student assistance programs, they’re all up as well. If you look at the Graduate to Opportunity, it’s up to $5 million. We just launched Graduate to Innovation, which is another couple of million. Those are areas that I would like to see grow.
The fundamental difference here is that graduate retention said, oh, you got a job, I’ll give you a bonus. What Graduate to Opportunity does is it says, if you will hire a new youth, I will give you 25 per cent of their first year of pay because you’re taking a chance on someone without experience, and you’re going to incur costs giving them the experience. What happens to that young individual is, they now have experience. Once you have experience, it’s a lot easier to stay attached to the workforce.
That has been our goal in terms of our approach with youth. It has paid off. As you look at the evidence, youth unemployment is down, and it’s down quite significantly. Earlier, I mentioned that for the last two years, we have had a net migration of more youth staying in the province than leaving the province. It’s the first time we have had that happen two years in a row in over 30 years. I’m more than happy, as we have more capacity, to invest in those programs. That’s what we will keep doing.
In terms of your other question, I have forgotten now, but my deputy will remind me.
MS. ZANN: Can I just repeat what the question was?
MR. KOUSOULIS: I remember it now.
MS. ZANN: When the decision was made by the department to fund tuition for apprentices returning to the classroom for their technical training, was there a gender-based analysis conducted?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Not a gender-based analysis. As a policy, we wanted to fund apprentices and they’re in a unique situation where they’re actually in the workforce, but they leave the workforce for a couple of weeks to six weeks to get some training and then they go back to their place of employment.
An area where we did look at exactly what you’re talking to is our enhancement Apprenticeship START Program, and that looks at under-represented areas as well as female apprentices. It is an area where we’re trying to attract those under-represented groups to become apprentices.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Just to let you know, we need to exit at 9:27 p.m., so there’s six minutes left. That also includes the minister’s wrap-up.
MS. ZANN: First of all, the Graduate Retention Rebate program was good, I thought, because what it said was that if they stayed in the province after graduation for seven years, if they went to the Nova Scotia Community College, they got paid back half, which was about $3,500, something like that - $5,500, and if they stayed in after university, they got half of it back again. I actually talked to many young people who were either in the middle of doing that, with the hopes that they were going to stay on. The idea was that they could then stay, they could invest in a business, they could have a family, they could buy a house or something like that, and stay in Nova Scotia. That was the idea behind it.
Of the people who undertake the type of technical training that we were talking about, do we actually know how many are women and do we actually know how many are visible minorities?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Currently 6 per cent of apprentices are females and 16 per cent of apprentices come from an under-represented group, which could encompass any visible minority, Mi’kmaq or African Nova Scotians.
MS. ZANN: Does that also include people with physical challenges or only visible minorities?
MR. KOUSOULIS: Madam Chairman, people with physical challenges would be another 3 per cent to 4 per cent on top of that.
MS. ZANN: Thank you very much. I know our time is up, so thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Minister, you have probably three minutes and a few seconds to wrap up.
MR. KOUSOULIS: Madam Chairman, I would like to thank the dedicated staff of the department for all their hard work. It has been an excellent department to come into. I can’t tell you how pleased I am with how well run it is. I have been in government now for four years and the level of expertise across our Public Service just amazes me all the time - a lot of dedicated employees and hard-working employees and really wanting to be there for Nova Scotians to provide guidance, provide programs, provide opportunities.
I am very pleased with the department in how we are looking at our universities, our colleges, as well as how we’re funding them. We’re trying to give them, to the best of our ability a lot of runway, so they can make long-term decisions. We’re also trying to fund them to the best of our ability and we’re trying to also make college and university experience as accessible as possible.
I will quickly mention health and safety. The health and safety of our workforce in this province is of the utmost importance and the department is working very closely. I’ve heard great feedback from the private sector of how we’re in collaboration. They don’t view us as being at odds with the private sector. The private sector says that they will engage our occupational health and safety workers so that they can collaborate with them to make their job sites safer. I think that’s a good thing, as opposed to them looking at us as the police.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E14 stand?
Resolution E14 stands.
Resolution E15 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $433,079,000 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.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E15 carry?
Resolution E15 is carried.
In my role as Chair, I hereby call tonight concluded and we’ll see everybody tomorrow. Thank you very much.
[The subcommittee adjourned at 9:27 p.m.]