Ontario’s job training shuts out half of unemployed

April 08, 2012

Laurie Monsebraaten


Richard Botcher would love to leave welfare and return to work, but there are few training supports for disabled people in Ontario.


If the best route out of poverty is a job, a commission studying Ontario’s welfare system thinks the province can do more to help its most vulnerable residents find work.

Part of the problem is that almost half of Employment Ontario’s $1.2 billion worth of training programs are available only to people receiving employment insurance benefits.

And yet, barely half of the province’s jobless — and less than a quarter in Toronto — are eligible for EI.

As a result, swaths of job-seekers, including more than 550,000 households living on social assistance, are shut out of these programs, the commissioners note.

Sheyenne Ham, 24, is one of them. After studying art and design at Centennial College in 2006, she switched gears and found work as an administrator for a small electrical company. But the hours were erratic and some months she had to turn to welfare to make ends meet. In December, the company laid off its entire office staff. Since she didn’t have enough working hours to qualify for EI, Ham is back on welfare.

In an attempt to find a job with a future, Ham has set her sights on a career as a 911 operator. She has seen entry-level jobs advertised for $18 an hour with the potential to earn up to $30 an hour or more and is eager to apply.

Both Humber and Seneca Colleges offer 15-week courses in emergency telecommunications for about $2,000, including books. But welfare won’t cover the cost. And Ham can’t afford it on her monthly $599 welfare cheque.

Taking out an Ontario student loan is out of the question since Ham is still trying to make the minimum payment on a $10,000 loan she took out in 2006. So she is stuck.

“I can’t afford another loan. It’s very frustrating,” she says.

Making employment supports available to all job-seekers would level the playing field and help the province’s neediest escape poverty, says Ontario’s social services review commission, headed by Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh.

The commission’s final report, to be released in June, will also include recommendations on how to improve the administration of the province’s two welfare programs, Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. And it will look at how to ensure that welfare rates are adequate, sustainable and fair.

On the question of employment supports, there are already signs the commission is moving toward expanding access.

Economist Don Drummond called for an overhaul of provincial employment programs in his recent review of Ontario’s public services.

And last month, the City of Toronto unveiled a new workforce development strategy to better link employers to job-seekers.

“Large numbers of residents are not only excluded from vital financial benefits (available through EI) but also face unnecessary obstacles obtaining the training that can help them advance,” says Toronto’s Working As One report, endorsed by city council in March.

Despite several hundred government and government-contracted employment agencies operating in Toronto, “services are often fragmented, confusing, duplicated and exceedingly difficult to navigate,” the report says.

“The fundamental issue is not with the service providers themselves. It is that there is nothing resembling an employment services system. There is no big picture.”

Moreover, city welfare data shows that about half of households currently receiving Ontario Works, like Ham, have been on the program more than once over the past three years. That shows how difficult it is for them to find the right services and supports they need to compete for and retain jobs, the report adds.

The self-employed are also at a disadvantage.

A Toronto man who had run his own janitorial company and then a painting business before being forced to close due to the recession is a good example, notes Karen Wilson, manager of employment services for the city.

The 51-year-old man was hoping to put his small business and handyman skills toward a new career as an apartment superintendent or assistant property manager, she says.

He found a property management course at Humber College and wanted to apply through Ontario’s Second Career program, which provides up to $28,000 in tuition and living expenses to help those out of work move into new careers.

But because the man was self-employed and not eligible for EI, he didn’t qualify.

Fortunately, his Ontario Works caseworker was able to steer him into a property management course offered by the Greater Toronto Apartment Association and funded through the city’s Employment Services division.

The man graduated in December and is hopeful that one of several recent job interviews will pan out.

Heather MacVicar, general manager of Toronto Employment and Social Services, has been running the city’s welfare program for about 20 years. She has often lamented the lack of support for those on welfare who want to attend college or university.

“The reality is that most people on social assistance don’t want to take on significant debt through student loans,” she says.

About 264,000 Ontario households receive Ontario Works, and a further 294,000 live on the Ontario Disability Support Program. Although disabled people on welfare aren’t expected to look for work, many would like to be employed, at least part-time, say commissioners Lankin and Sheikh.

Segregating people on welfare from other job-seekers “reinforces the stigma of receiving assistance and makes it more difficult for people, especially people with disabilities, to access a wider range of services,” they say in a recent discussion paper.

“The separation also results in service duplication and gaps, confusion for job-seekers and employers, and administrative inefficiencies,” they add.

Richard Botcher is someone with a disability who would dearly like to return to work, but feels caught in the system.

The 49-year-old trucker worked full-time for 20 years until a schizophrenic episode in 2000 caused him to lose his job, his truck and his home. He has relied on the Ontario Disability Support Program ever since.

He tried to return to trucking work through a temp agency. But without a car to get to the Brampton job site, he spent more than four hours a day taking transit. It meant he could only work two or three days a week. And with welfare clawing back 50 cents on every dollar he earned, he had trouble paying his rooming-house rent and wound up homeless again.

Since then, he has been able to move into supportive housing, where he has a part-time cleaning job. He would love to return to trucking and leave welfare, but would need to save at least $5,000 to buy a car to get him there. He would also need retraining to bring his skills up to date. But there are few training supports for disabled people on welfare, and it is next to impossible to save money when so much is clawed back from his earnings, he says.

“I researched a Humber College retraining program for transportation but it costs $3,000,” he says. “How am I supposed to save that kind of money on ODSP?”

More understanding from employers about the cyclical nature of mental illness would also help, Botcher adds.

“There are a lot of presumptions that people could work if they wanted to — that they are idling,” Lankin says in an interview. “But during our consultations we learned that nothing could be farther from the truth.”

“At the very least I would argue, given the overwhelming number of people with disabilities who aspire to work, we should at least be providing all the same kinds of supports you can get when you are receiving Ontario Works.”

One in a series on Ontario’s welfare reform commission

Employment Services in Ontario

  Municipalities administer Ontario Works and provide employment at 133 sites, including main and satellite offices.

  Ontario's community and social services ministry administers the Ontario Disability Support Program through 46 regional sites and contracts out employment supports to about 150 community agencies.

  Ontario's Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities funds 51 regional Employment Ontario offices and 400 programs through non-profit and private agencies.

  Just 17 per cent of people receiving services from Employment Ontario are on social assistance.

  Half of Employment Ontario's $1.2 billion in training programs are available only to those eligible for Employment Insurance.

  The commission suggests one level of government oversee employment training programs for all job-seekers.